Thursday, April 26, 2012

Is more testing needed for BSE?

Given all the hype about a newly discovered case of BSE or “mad cow”, it seems I must comment. I will not give you the main message, that meat is still safe, although it is. Nor will I try to explain the disease and why this atypical case is really “no big deal”, although it isn’t.  The USDA and CDC websites do a great job with all those facts. PLEASE READ them.

As an epidemiologist, I must make some comment on the question of testing. A reporter was asking me whether this case suggests we need to test more cattle for BSE. The short answer is “NO”. The testing program was designed by able-brained epidemiologists and statisticians with thorough review by experienced international colleagues. It is designed to do just what it did, find those few cases that occur. The surveillance system is actually quite strong; able to detect BSE in the US “herd” at the very low level of 1 positive in 1 million animals!

Most importantly, we must ask, “what would we do if the USDA tested more animals?”  The answer, “the same thing we do now.” Currently, ill animals do not enter the food chain, just like this latest cow did not. Positive animals are reported and carefully investigated. Currently, every cow entering the food chain has BSE infectious material removed so there is no risk to humans.

So what would happen if we doubled the testing from current high level of 40,000 per year to 80,000?  We would double the cost and not increase the safety, ….even a smidge.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Do the science of food safety: BOOORRRING!

This week was one of the rare occasions when I agreed (sort of) with a food safety editorial in the mainstream media. The USA Today piece by (author un-named). ( highlighted the problems when marketing gimmicks (e.g. “pink slime”) and media hype set food safety priorities.  I agree some critical and difficult scientific facts and analysis are needed to prioritize and resolve the important food safety issues. Communication fiascos like “pink slime” greatly detract from that effort. A tremendous amount of resources were wasted by those who feed and protect us.  I mean, don’t the secretary of Ag and Midwest governors of have better things to do than reassure a public frightened by the media that beef is beef (

Unfortunately, the science required to address these prioritization questions does not fit into a “sexy slogan” or a sound-bite which must be presented at an 8th grade reading level. The science involves understanding important epidemiological, microbiological and risk assessment concepts such as “attributable risk”, “preventable fraction”, “virulence”, “specificity” and “intervention effectiveness” (to name a few). These are technical concepts that are not easily accepted by the general public or even by many non-quantitative scientists. On the brighter side, I should note that I greatly appreciate the few media personnel and smart congressional staffers that do make the effort to work through the science and understand the issues

Because of the above technical issues, I must say that I disagree with the two alternative, high priority issues, mentioned by the editorialist; antibiotic use and needle injection labeling.  Labels have a low “intervention effectiveness. Ask those who have worked for decades to simply get consumers to cook and handle meat properly.

I strongly suggest that we listen to the flock of scientists employed by FSIS, FDA, universities, and the food industry; boring as it may be.  We pay them! They have no desire to make anyone sick, nor incite do unnecessary controversy. They don’t get extra funding to scare people. They desire to find answers, fix problems, and make a positive difference.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Beginning of the End for Growth Promoting Antibiotics

Today (April 11, 2012) the FDA1  announced what they termed a “voluntary initiative” limiting the use of antibiotics for “growth promoting” or “production purposes”.  Please do not let the genteel approach of my professional FDA colleagues fool you.
This action is big!  It will result in the end of all antibiotic uses that are critically important to humans as well as those not labeled for the treatment or prevention of a specific animal pathogen or “bad bug”. 2
Although no published scientific risk assessment has  shown a direct human health impact of on-farm antibiotic use, the concern that farmers are creating a “super bug.  This, combined with an anti-big agriculture sentiment of many consumer groups3, has led the FDA to determine growth promotion useto be “injudicious” i.e. not in their best judgment. The word injudicious  represents an artful move by the politicos (recall, I was one) and shifs the argument from science (risk assessment) to precautionary politics.
Thanks to our democratic society and the patience of most parties involved, this action will produce a much larger and more immediate, yet targeted effect, than legislation or specific regulations could have achieved.  Although Guidance 209 does not take effect for 3 years, most of the veterinarians I know in large pork production companies have already begun to comply.  Additionally, I can assure you, the packers who buy that pork will make every effort to ensure compliance with FDA’s “voluntary guidance”, particularly through the producer’s Quality Assurance Program.4

1Food and Drug Administration. (11 April 2012). FDA takes steps to protect public health. Available online at <>
2Food and Drug Administration. (2012). Guidance for Industry #209: The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food Producing Animals. Available online at:
3Center for Science In the Public Interest. (11 April 2012). FDA Voluntary Guidance on Antibiotics Tragically Flawed.  Available online at <>
4 National Pork Board. Pork Checkoff Certification Programs: Pork Quality Assurance. Available online at

Antibiotics important to livestock, food safety

The use of antibiotics in livestock farming has quickly become one of the more popular topics of public debate.  The notion that antibiotic use on livestock farms will somehow cause harm to human health is not new. The vigor in which these concerns and fears are being raised has increased. However, sentiment alone cannot be used to make effective public policy decisions. It extremely important for people to understand the true human health risk of these practices, as well as the alternative risks of policy actions that would eliminate antibiotics from agriculture’s tool box and increase animal illness and suffering. 

For the record, there has never been a scientifically published risk assessment on-farm antibiotic use, using FDA methods, which demonstrates a meaningful risk to humans.  In one risk assessment that I published, on a specific antibiotic widely used in cattle, swine, and poultry, I found there is considerably greater chance of being struck by lightning or dying from a bee sting than any risk of being harmed by livestock antibiotics.  The chain of events that would have to occur for antibiotic resistance in humans from livestock is not only extensive, but extremely unlikely.  That maybe somewhat surprising to many given most people have been fed a steady diet of information sharing “worries”, “concerns” and “fears” that livestock is the largest perpetrator in human antibiotic resistance.  The reality is that concern does not equal risk.  You may be worried or concerned that your next commercial flight will have a mechanical problem and crash, however, the true risk of that happening is minuscule.  Concern over a health threat means we should study and watch. However the presence of a risk means we should take action to minimize.

The strategic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is cornerstone of preventing livestock disease. These products are critical to farmers and consumers alike as they aid in providing the safe food supply we currently enjoy.  I have published three papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals demonstrating the close connection between animal health and the risk of human foodborne illness. The loss of these products through campaigns led by concern or fear, rather than facts would be detriment us all.  The editorial “Wiser practices for farm antibiotics” which ran in the April 4 edition of the Lincoln Journal Star seemed to ignore these important points falling more into the worry and fear camp.   The editorial cited Robert Lawrence at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as an authority on livestock antibiotics in espousing major concerns about antibiotic use.  The editorial failed to note that Lawrence is also a founding director of the “Center for a Liveable Future” at Johns Hopkins, a think tank which is opposed to mainstream agriculture and common practices use by farmers to help feed you and your family, including antibiotics for livestock.   

Very soon the Food and Drug Administration is will release new guidance on antibiotic use in livestock which will represent a significant change for farmers, ranchers and livestock feeders.  These changes will likely lead to the end of antibiotic use for growth promotion, one of the more popular targets for critics.  The guidance is also expected to increase the role of veterinary oversight in on-farm use of antibiotics.  Much of this action by FDA is in response to concerns about on-farm antibiotic use. These changes will have a significant impact on farmer, and likely lead to an end of certain antibiotic uses.

Moving forward, I suggest that decisions made about antibiotic use must be founded in science and based on true risks to human health.  Anything short of such approach will lead to true human harm by hampering the ability of agriculture to feed a growing population, one that includes you and me. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

NPR: The Economic Impact of Killing Pink Slime

Check out what Dr. Hurd and others have to say about pink slime.

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
And I'm Robert Siegel. Now, the latest in the pink slime saga. That's the derogatory term for a meat product made by processing leftover beef trimmings. The fear over the so-called slime is having economic effects. This week, Beef Products Incorporated or BPI temporarily closed down three meat processing plants in Kansas, Texas and Iowa. Now, the governors of those states are defending the controversial meat product. Yesterday, they toured the only BPI factory still opened in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Iowa Public Radio Sandhya Dirks has the story.
SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: It spread across social media like a virus. Once again, big agriculture was trying to stuff an unsavory, unsafe meat product down the throat of the American consumer. But BPI's co-founder, Regina Roth, says they are not big, bad agriculture.
REGINA ROTH: We are a family-owned business. We try to do the right thing for our company, for our customers, for our employees and for our community.
DIRKS: A lot of consumers don't see it that way. They see the processed meat. It's viscous and thin, like soft serve but beef. Many got their first look on ABC's "World News Tonight." ABC interviewed former United States Department of Agriculture employee Gerald Zirnstein, the man who coined the term pink slime.
GERALD ZIRNSTEIN: It's economic fraud. It's not fresh ground beef. It's a substitute. It's a cheap substitute being added in.
DIRKS: But Kansas Governor Sam Brownback blames the name pink slime. He's got another catchphrase in mind.
GOVERNOR SAM BROWNBACK: And I hope the dude, it's beef, catches on...
BROWNBACK: ...because that's what this is. Dude, it's beef.
BROWNBACK: And it's good beef. My family raises cattle. We've lost 300 jobs in Kansas off of this.
DIRKS: Brownback says just because it's processed doesn't mean it's not meat. Iowa State University professor and former deputy under secretary for food safety at the USDA Scott Hurd says it's like any processed food. BPI takes what gets left behind on the chopping block.
DR. SCOTT HURD: So what they do then is warm those trimmings, and then there's kind of a centrifugal process that's like separating fat from skimmed milk. And so the fatty tissue goes one direction, the lean tissue goes the other direction.
DIRKS: Then they add ammonia, and that has freaked out a lot of consumers. The USDA says that it's actually a pretty foolproof way to kill bacteria, like E. coli and salmonella. But many consumers can't stomach the idea of eating leftover meat that's been treated with a solvent even if they've been doing so for 20 years. Facebook and Twitter campaigns have put pressure on grocery chains and school boards, and it's worked. BPI orders have slowed to a crawl. That frustrates Texas Governor Rick Perry.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: I have to go back to Texas and explain to people in Amarillo why they may not have a job. And I'm telling you I don't know the answer to that. Has there been one individual in this country that has been poisoned or has been sick or has died from a product that came out of this company?
DIRKS: The USDA says there hasn't. But even if the public remains squeamish about the product, people are still going to eat hamburgers, and the extra meat once provided by BPI is going to have to come from somewhere, namely 1.5 million additional head of cattle. So to save jobs and redeem BPI's products, the governors are staking their political capital and their stomachs. After the press conference, Iowa's governor, Terry Branstad, takes a bite of a BPI burger.
GOVERNOR TERRY BRANSTAD: It's all right. It's good.
DIRKS: And Governor Branstad says it's nutritious. For NPR News, I'm Sandhya Dirks, South Sioux City, Nebraska.