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Beefs and Beliefs

New Antibiotic Resistance Claims By EWG Are Yellow Journalism

Facts about antibiotic resistance show the problem is being heavily scrutinized, changes are being made and foodborne illness is in decline.


A few days ago the Environmental Working Group publicized and sensationalized data from a year-old research report on antibiotic-resistant bacteria in supermarket-collected meat samples.

It was fundamentally yellow journalism and it naturally ended in a call for more government regulation and control, as is typical for this group.

The press release was called "Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets" and focused on a small section of the 2011 report of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, a joint project of the federal Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USDA.

EWG noted a section of the public report on supermarket sampling for Salmonella and Campylobacter and said there were "significant amounts of the superbug versions" of those two bacterial families.

It was, in a word, reactionary.

FDA on Monday released a warning to be cautious when interpreting resistance data. It said the "EWG report oversimplifies the NARMS data and provides misleading conclusions.”

The American Society of Animal Science board of directors also responded with a press release the middle of this week saying the EWG's report "overlooks important data and the facts about food safety."

In a story by National Public Radio on April 17, reporter Eliza Barclay clearly showed her ignorance in reporting on the EWG's interpretation of the 2011 NARMS report.

She wrote: "As if the presence of these microbes weren't enough, the researchers found that a lot of the bacteria were strains resistant to antibiotics, making them even more dangerous for humans. The implications were significant — that the bacteria had become resistant to antibiotics back at the farm because farmers were overusing them."

Wow! Talk about packing a lot of ignorance into one paragraph. These "microbes" are common throughout nature, including in or on the food we eat. There are many strains and specific species of them and their mere presence in small numbers is not worrisome.

Resistance to antibiotics is becoming much more common these days and, I think, warrants some worry. Therefore I don't take issue with that part of Barclay's statement.

However, Barclay's assumption that the antibiotic resistance came from the farm, specifically from farmers "overusing" said antibiotics is quite likely libelous.

So, let's throw out the window all the crap these people are shoveling and start with some facts.

First, we live amid a completely natural battle every day on our farms and ranches, as do those who live in the middle of the largest cities. That battle is one we never see. It is fought on a microscopic battlefield in soils and streams and forests, in the bodies of all animals and even in our bathrooms, kitchens and hospitals. Bacteria and viruses are fighting for supremacy and as soon as one gains the upper hand another will soon overcome.

We humans and those animals in our care have gotten ahead of the game for awhile with our use of antibiotics, most or all of which derive from compounds created by natural means as a part of this biological warfare. But we can't be sure we'll stay ahead and that's what this entire argument is about.

Second, the problem flows both ways. More tons of antibiotics are used in the animal industry than in human medicine but humans and animals both create antibiotic resistance in our bodies. Kansas State University veterinarian Mike Apley addressed that with Beef Producer in an article two years ago when he made it very clear that antibiotic resistance has in a few cases been shown pretty definitively to have crossed from farm animals to humans. However, he said, it is not a widespread phenomenon.

Moreover, Beef Producer also carried a story last November in which a group of Scottish researchers showed it highly likely one particular strain of Salmonella known as Salmonella Typhimurium DT104 had crossed both ways -- from animals to humans but perhaps more often from humans to animals. The researcher who reported on this study at a meeting in Ohio said there also appeared to be another vector involved in the process, perhaps one or more wildlife species.

The antibiotic resistance problem is being worked upon actively throughout the animal industry and in the human medicine industries.

So tell your friends and neighbors things are getting better and not worse. The animal industries have already agreed to phase out the feeding of antibiotic compounds in the next couple years. We are eliminating all extra-label use of antibiotics and are requiring producer cooperation with veterinarians. The response of the human-medicine community must be strong, as well.

Here's some good news you can share, too: The CDC recently reported food-borne illnesses and outbreaks in the U.S. are down 40% over the last 10 years.

Obviously we can't say the problems are solved but exaggerated, inaccurate reporting will never make things better. This EWG report was nothing but headline grabbing and exaggeration.

Remember, too, that antibiotic resistance is a problem that will never go away as long as there is life on this planet. It is a long-term problem that requires long-term thinking, planning and re-planning to deal with.

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