If a business or NGO had any kind of interest in how meat and poultry was produced, they were probably represented in Washington to discuss responsible antibiotic use in food production. What brought them to a very large table at the Stewardship Forum wasn't the growing but largely misdirected public passion for getting antibiotics out of the feedyard. The federal government is the largest buyer of meat and poultry in the world and the threat of losing access to the Mariana's Trench-like depths of Uncle Sammie's purse created an instant scrambling of the troops.
The unacknowledged financial threat that loomed before the Forum began was made real during the opening session when the White House announced that all departments and agencies will be directed to favor meat and poultry produced with "responsible antibiotic use' and the White House will only serve meats and poultry from animals not treated with 'hormones or antibiotics.'
Highlighting, underscoring and bold-facing that initiative was a statement that the FDA will finalize changes to federal regulations ensuring "judicious use" of medically important antibiotics under the oversight of veterinarians.
John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, speaking during the opening session of the forum, said, "This policy builds on the important work in the Food and Drug Administration, antibiotic manufacturers, veterinarians, food suppliers and retailers, and farmers who are already taking substantial steps to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion,"
Although almost everyone seemed to fall in line, there was one slightly dissenting voice. The North American Meat Institute expressed "concern about certain statements in the White House press release that could confuse consumers."
A statement issued by NAMI Senior Vice President, Public Affairs, Janet Riley, commenting about "The Presidential Food Service is also committing to serving meats and poultry that have not been treated with hormones or antibiotics," said "No meat or poultry product is 'treated' with antibiotics. Livestock and poultry may sometimes be administered antibiotics, but strict federal withdrawal periods and careful federal residue monitoring ensure that meat and poultry derived from animals that received antibiotics are safe for consumers."
National Chicken Council Senior Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, Dr. Ashley Peterson, speaking on behalf of the poultry industry at the Forum, clarified industry practices when she said, "The vast majority of the antibiotics that we use are never used in human medicine. The majority are from a class called ionophores which are used in animals only and are critically important to chicken producers to maintain the gut health of our birds."
More importantly, she said the poultry industry was already a step ahead of the FDA's soon-to-come 'judicious use' regulation. "We also support FDA's Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), finalized today, as veterinary oversight is important to continued success. Today, all chicken farms are under a health program designed by a licensed veterinarian."
Dr. Richard Raymond, former USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety, made a more pointed statement about the almost unacknowledged cause of the superbug problem in a blog he wrote for Meatingplace.com in May, 2014.
Casting a weary and jaundiced eye at the real problem: the overuse of antibiotics by humans, he let some Midwest sarcasm fly. "As long as you can take your suitcase into a pharmacy in many countries, and fill it up with Z-Packs, this global problem (antibiotic resistant bacteria or 'super bugs') is not going away.
And it will not go away by further limiting antibiotic use in animals in the United States beyond what the FDA has already done."
Six months earlier, he defined the three critical superbug threats to public health. Note how many of them are food related.
- Clostridium difficile, a bug that lands 250,000 Americans in the hospital every year and kills 14,000. (CDC estimates the total mortality from antibiotic resistance is 23,000 annually) C difficile is an opportunistic infection resulting when a patient takes a very potent antibiotic that kills off the normal gut flora. Usually hospital acquired. Not food related.
- Number two is multidrug resistant Neisseria gonorrhea, a venereal disease. Not hospital acquired and definitely not food related.
- The third is the scariest to me. Carbapenem Resistant Enterobacteraceae (CRE). Sometimes called the nightmare bug. CRE has up to a 50 percent mortality rate and is increasing in frequency. Once Enterbacteraceae become resistant to our last line drug, nothing much else is going to work. Hospital related, not food related.
So, it seems that the White House Forum might go a long way toward soothing the fears of a poorly informed public. Solving the growing world problem of antibiotic resistance, though, will require the cooperation of substantially more than 150 concerned food-oriented businesses and associations meeting for a day to 'view with alarm' in Washington.
It's nice that most people in this business were willing to respond to the call, however. Rather than the usual marshalling of the troops to fight against any change and point the finger at possibly more culpable villains, the folks attending the Forum outlined what they are doing to help create a more healthy environment. Getting ahead of the curve and saying, "We understand our role in causing some small part of this problem and we're going to do everything we can to prevent it from becoming a larger health issue," is a pleasant change in tactics.
Even if Mr. Obama did have to build the corral and herd them into it.
You can find a complete list of participating stakeholders at the Forum by clicking here.