Antibiotics are routinely given to livestock on factory farms to make them gain weight with less feed and keep them from getting sick in confinement conditions. But the daily dosing, at the same time it lowers feed needs, lowers drug effectiveness and produces antibiotic resistant bacteria or super bugs.
In January, researchers found 230 out of 395 raw pork cuts bought in U.S. stores were contaminated with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), the dangerous staph bacterium. While the germs would likely not infect consumers if the meat were cooked, the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the food supply is alarming. Worse--there were "no statistically significant differences" between "conventionally raised swine and swine raised without antibiotics," reported the researchers. So much for buying safely raised meat.
And in December, the FDA scrapped its three-decade long effort to regulate the use of the popular human antibiotics penicillin and tetracycline in livestock, claiming the regulatory fights against Big Meat are too time-consuming and expensive.
By and large, events like these, despite their importance, are hardly noted in the mainstream media.
Cynics might have seen the government's concessions to Big Meat coming when a report asserting that MRSA kills more Americans per year than AIDS "disappeared" from the National Agricultural Library website last summer with no explanation, says reporter Tom Philpott.
Of course, MRSA is only one antibiotic resistant germ and not even the one clinicians fear the most anymore. Clinicians also worry about vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE), encouraged by the use of the antibiotic virginiamycin in livestock, Clostridium difficile, a serious intestinal bug developing resistance, and resistant Acinetobacter baumannii which has so afflicted US troops in Iraq it has been dubbed "Iraqibacter."
And days after the penicillin announcement, there was another concession to Big Meat. The FDA issued new, watered down rules on the use of cephalosporins in livestock (a different type of antibiotic) after Big Meat muscled down the FDA's original order to prohibit cephalosporins in 2008 (which also disappeared with little explanation.) Cephalosporins are important human antibiotics used for pneumonia, strep throat, salmonella and skin and urinary tract infections. In 2008, the FDA had announced that there was "evidence that extralabel use of these drugs [cephalosporins] in food-producing animals will likely cause an adverse event in humans and, as such, presents a risk to the public health," and called for their prohibition.
But by the time hearings were held two months later and lobbyists had worked their magic, the "Cephalosporin Order of Prohibition," had somehow become a "Hearing to Review the Advances In Animal Health Within The Livestock Industry." Prohibition--advances, same idea, right?
At the hearings, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Animal Health Institute, a Big Pharma trade group and the egg, chicken, turkey, milk, pork and cattle industries whined that they could not "farm" without antibiotics because more feed would be required and the animals would get sick from being immobilized over their own manure.
"To raise turkeys without antibiotics would increase the incidence of illness in turkey flocks," sniveled the National Turkey Federation's Michael Rybolt, PhD. Antibiotics "reduce the level of potentially harmful bacteria which result in infections and sickness," sniffed the National Milk Producers Federation Robert D. Byrne, PhD (key word, "potential.") Antibiotics decrease the amount of land needed to raise animals and provide a lower priced "wholesome" product for the public said one farm operator after another. One even claimed that manure is reduced because animals eat less. Factory farming is green!
After the hearings, W. Ron DeHaven, DVM, who was the USDA's top vet before leaving for industry and helming the AVMA, penned a rambling, almost incoherent 18-page letter with 62 footnotes to the FDA. Cephalosporin resistant "human pathogens" aren't increasing, says the letter, and even if they are, they're not affecting human health and even they're affecting human health, how do you know it's from the livestock drugs and even if it's from the livestock drugs, the FDA has no legal authority to ban cephalosporin. Got that?
Less than a month after the letter was sent, on November 25, the FDA revoked the prohibition yet the press neither reported neither the dilution of the "Order of Prohibition" into a "Hearing to Review the Advances In Animal Health," or the rescinding of the order under industry pressure.
It was no surprise that the AVMA approved of the FDA's new cephalosporin livestock rules. "We thought the original order was too broad and unnecessarily prohibited uses that were not likely to cause problems for human health," said the American Veterinary Medical Association's Dr. Hoang, who testified in 2008 that the reduced feed antibiotics make possible is a "health-promoting" effect and a "therapeutic use," for animals. What?
The FDA's new rules for cephalosporins no longer ban the antibiotic but limit "large and lengthy dosing in cattle and swine," says the New York Times. They also allow uses "the F.D.A. has not specifically approved," and wide use in ducks and rabbits. Yum. In December the FDA also scrapped its three-decade long effort to regulate the use of the popular human antibiotics penicillin and tetracycline in livestock.
Still, the new rules prohibit one unsavory factory farming practice that few are aware of--the "routine injections of cephalosporins into chicken eggs."
In 2008, while inspecting egg operations, the FDA caught hatcheries injecting cephalosporins directly into chicken eggs, "rather than by the approved method of administering the drug to day-old chicks." The same year, Tyson Foods was caught injecting eggs with a different antibiotic, the human antibiotic gentamicin, linked to serious side effects.
Several scientific journals report that antibiotics injected into the eggs of layer hens before they hatch produce drug residues in the eggs they lay. The abuse of antibiotics on farms was one of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's (D-MA) last stands. "It seems scarcely believable that these precious medications could be fed by the ton to chickens and pigs," he wrote in a bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007 (PAMTA) which has yet to pass. "These precious drugs aren't even used to treat sick animals. They are used to fatten pigs and speed the growth of chickens. The result of this rampant overuse is clear: meat contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria sits on supermarket shelves all over America," said Kennedy years before this month's report on MRSA-contaminated pork. The meat industry, "is rampantly misusing antibiotics in an attempt to cover up filthy, unsanitary living conditions among animals," echoed Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-NY), who cosponsored the bill and holds degrees in microbiology and public health.
Over 70 percent of antibiotics go to livestock, not people, says the bill and they are used on over 83 percent of grower-finisher swine farms, cattle feedlots, and sheep farms and found in 48 percent of US streams.
Of course, it's no surprise that Big Meat denies the dangers of antibiotic resistance and/or its part in it and opposes PAMTA. "We don't believe we are the main cause of antibiotic resistance," Dave Warner, the National Pork Producers Council's communications director told Johns Hopkins Magazine. Doctors who overprescribe antibiotics are the culprit, says Warner, since "There are only 67,000 pork producers." Only?
The chicken industry also pleads innocent. "We believe our use is responsible and limited," Richard Lobb, public relations director for the National Chicken Council, told the Hartford Advocate.
What is a surprise is that Big Pharma, supposed medical professionals, is also "flat earth" when it comes to antibiotic resistance. Elanco, the animal division of Eli Lilly, says in an online brochure recently taken don, that "monitoring antibiotic resistance in raw meat products is not an appropriate measure to represent the bacteria that reach the consumer" because cooking destroys these bacteria, and dead bacteria cannot transmit antibiotic resistance. The Animal Health Institute, representing Abbott, Bayer Healthcare, Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Elanco/Lilly, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer says, "There is no scientific evidence that antibiotics used in food animals have any significant impact on the effectiveness of antibiotics in people," it deadpans in a brochure created specifically to oppose PAMTA.
In fact, antibiotics form such a huge part of Big Pharma revenues, antibiotic resistance literally divides medical professionals along species lines. Many medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, support PAMTA out of concern for patient infections while big veterinary groups tend to oppose it.
Nor did it help PAMTA's cause that by early 2011 Kennedy had died and Sharfstein had left the FDA abruptly and without comment. Lawmakers have clearly knuckled under to Big Meat at the price of public health. And press reports of the concessions have been almost absent. - Martha Rosenberg