On Feb. 23, representatives from several livestock and poultry groups met with congressional leaders to discuss the use of antibiotics in conventionalproduction.
An email alerting the press about the event read, “despite the unsubstantiated allegations by activist groups, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that shows the use of antibiotics on farms contributes significantly to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans.”
Antibiotic use on farms has been under growing scrutiny lately. Many livestock and poultry operations feed “sub-therapeutic” antibiotics to healthy flocks, hogs and cattle, because the drugs help prevent disease and make the animals grow faster. However, many scientists say the practice could be a primary contributor to the rise of “superbugs,” such as MRSA and ESBL E. coli. Low-dose antibiotics used on the farm cause these bacteria to mutate and become resistant to regular antibiotics, posing a threat to human health, the argument goes.
As in the email above, meat and poultry groups regularly characterize opponents of these practices as “activists,” and argue that there is no conclusive proof that antibiotics used on farms lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the human population.
But this is misleading. One of the earliest reports on the issue raised concern about drug-resistant salmonella developing in populations of farm animals that were fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics. It was written by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1984.
The CDC is hardly an activist group, and neither are the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the World Health Organization and the American Association of Pediatrics, all of which say the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics on farms should be curtailed.
And, while it is difficult for scientists to prove how a specific strain of bacteria traveled from its point of origin to infect a person, the basic means of transmission aren't difficult to conceptualize. A feature published in the June 2009 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine, for example, cites studies by the university's scientists, and simply states “scientists know that resistant pathogens can travel from farms by air, water, bird, housefly, chicken truck or manure spreader.”
The meat and poultry industry can point to several competing studies. There is also the very real concern that a sudden ban on sub-therapeutic antibiotics could increase the risk of foodborne illnesses in the near term.
But antibiotic-resistant bacteria remain a real threat to human health. Maybe sub-therapeutic antibiotics are causing the mutations that make these bacteria resistant, maybe they are not. The risk that these antibiotics could be responsible is too great to ignore, however, and dismissing scientists and doctors as “activists,” and responding to their concerns with blanket denials does a disservice to this serious debate.
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