Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, wrote a letter to the leaders of the U.S. House agriculture and agriculture appropriations committees this week, refuting criticisms of their effort to restrict antibiotic use in farm animals. Food Poisoning Bulletin has been following this story for some time.
On July 3, 2012, associations such as the American Meat Institute and National Pork Producers Council sent a letter to representatives in the House, saying that Consumers Union’s report “Meat on Drugs” is inaccurate. Consumers Union’s response refutes the industry’s criticism in their eight page letter. They point out that the FDA has taken the position that “increasing the exposure of bacterial populations to antimicrobial drugs increases the risk of generating resistance to those antimicrobial drugs.”
Many scientists agree, including those at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the World Health Organization. Other countries have taken the lead on this issue. For instance, in 2011 the European Union voted on the “Resolution on the Public Health Threat of Antimicrobial Resistance” calls on the European Commission to phase out the prophylactic use of antibiotics in farm animals. The Resolution also recommends antibiotic use as a last resort.
One of the criticisms of the Consumers Union report was that producers spend lots of money to build facilities to house farm animals. But CU points out that “a typical industrial broiler chicken system involves placing 20,000 to 30,000 day-old chicks in a shed; by the last two weeks of life, there is only slightly more than half a square foot of living space per 4.5 to 6 pound bird. We regard those conditions as crowded.” CU also states that the Wright County Egg Salmonella outbreak and investigation highlighted many problems with that facility, including “piles of manure in some of the chicken houses that were so high as to have pushed the doors open. An FDA report issued earlier this month found that slightly over 40 percent of the egg farms surveyed violated the FDA’s Egg Safety Rule.”
The industry also argued that antibiotic use in farm animals is essential to making food safe. CU responds that Consumer Reports released a test of chickens in 2009 that found Salmonella and/or Campylobacter in 2/3 of samples bought at supermarkets, and that 68% of the Salmonella and 60% of the Campylobacter were resistant to one or more antibiotics. In other words, routine prophylactic antibiotic use is not eliminating pathogens from chicken, but is creating resistant bacteria.
The letter ends with this statement: “In sum, we face an extremely serious problem of loss of effectiveness of antibiotics in human medicine. It is essential to reduce the substantial use of antibiotics in food animals to address this problem.”