Bee sting more deadly than antibiotic risk

This week the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric aired a two-part series on antibiotics in animal agriculture (view Segment One --; Segment Two

According to livestock industry, veterinary and scientific experts, the information presented about the use of antibiotics in livestock was fraught with misinformation, speculation, and inaccuracies. "The CBS report was rather short on facts and science and long on speculation," said Dr. Richard Carnevale, veterinarian and vice president, Regulatory, Scientific and International Affairs, Animal Health Institute, in a media conference call on Feb. 11.

"The segment failed to portray that antibiotics used in livestock are FDA approved and monitored for residues and bacterial resistance," Carnevale explained. "They undergo a rigorous approval process and all are subject to surveillance. The implication was that antibiotic-resistant bacteria freely flow between people and animals, but there are numerous layers of protection. Bacteria do not fly and cause human infection despite what the PEW spokesman said in the CBS interview. I am dismayed the FDA commissioner did not discuss this."

Carnevale noted that the CBS segment did not differentiate between the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections that can occur in people and animals. "The CDC and FDA have recognized they are two different strains," he said, "and that hospital-acquired and human MRSA infections have no animal connection. MRSAs in animals are not the same as in hospital infections, but that's what CBS focused on. The story was short on these key facts."

On the media call, Dr. Scott Hurd, senior epidemiologist, College of Veterinary Medicine, Iowa State University and former Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety, USDA, spoke about risk assessments for antibiotic resistance. "The actual risk assessments that have been and quantified the steps in the causal chain to get from on-farm to sick humans say there is virtually no risk at all. You are more likely to die from a bee sting than have a few extra days of illness from products that are used on the farm." Hurd noted that there are so many steps between the farm and the fork, that by the time you get meat products in the kitchen, there are very few pathogenic bacteria and very, very few are resistant bacteria.

Banning antibiotics for use in food animals can also lead to other unwanted problems. "If you ban the antibiotics there won't be any improvement in public health," Hurd stated. "Research and published papers show that if antibiotics are not used in animals at all, there are small changes in animal health, a few more subclinically infected animals go to market, and there's an increase in pathogen load, which means they probably will have Salmonella or Campylobacter on the carcass.

Hurd noted that this has been modeled out in poultry and the end result would be more human illness days when you ban antibiotics than you have now. "The Danes have shown that Salmonella rates in humans have not gone down after antibiotics were banned," he said. "The World Health Organization concluded there was no benefit in public health and there was an increased cost of pig production."

Hurd has posted a point-by-point response to Segment One of the CBS show here He is currently working on his response to Segment Two (find it at ).

Dr. Liz Wagstrom, assistant vice president of science and technology for the National Pork Board was interviewed by Couric for the CBS show. "Pork producers have a closer relationship with their veterinarians to strategically place antibiotics at a time in the animals" life when they may be at risk," she said on the media call. "For over 20 years with the Pork Quality Assurance Program we have focused on responsible use and residue avoidance. A transition to the PQA-Plus program now also looks at regulations regarding residues and also the responsible use of antibiotics to protect animal and human health."

Wagstrom explained that the on-farm assessment for producers requires them to show they have a valid veterinarian-client-patient-relationship, records and decision-making strategies. "It's just one tool they use to protect animals and produce safe food. Other tools include hygiene, vaccination, ventilation, and keeping them warm, clean, dry and safe. All of these are part of a continuous process to raise healthy animals and produce safe food."