As a public health veterinarian, I am concerned that a campaign such as “Meat without Drugs” could result in “Animals without Health”. A new report from Consumer Reports1 provides some public opinion data that are not surprising. Given the constant drumbeat about the “overuse” of antibiotics in livestock production, consumers are frightened and convinced that there is a problem. One problem is that opinion polls and secret shopper surveys of labels are not scientific risk assessments. All peer-reviewed scientific risk assessments have demonstrated a negligible risk of human health harm due to livestock antibiotic use.2,3,4
I think the bigger problem is that a campaign such as “Meat without Drugs” could mean that veterinarians have no way to treat sick animals or prevent epidemic diseases. It is not possible to raise children without antibiotics. How do people expect us to raise these baby chicks, piglets and calves into wholesome meat, dairy and egg products without the assistance of modern medicine? Actually, most of the antibiotics used on the farm are not the modern cutting edge products used by your local pediatrician.
Do the consumers and Consumer Reports know what happens to sick animals on organic farms, which produce animals without antibiotics? The veterinarian does not just give them some chamomile tea and send them to bed! No, often they go untreated, hoping to get better. If that does not work then they may be treated (reluctantly) and then moved into a non-antibiotic-free group, maybe in the same barn. If they do shed some antibiotic resistant organisms, they are easily shared with their organic neighbors. But the worst part is they may go UNTREATED. Once an ill animal is noted by the farmer, it has likely been sick for a while. There is little time left to treat before it dies. This waiting or denial of treatment is inhumane!
Data show that only about 13%5 of the total food-animal antibiotics used are for “growth promotion”. Very soon that amount will be zero, thanks to new guidance from the FDA6 . The remaining amounts are to prevent and treat painful deadly animal diseases. Does the consumer really want us to lose those tools that prevent animal suffering and improve food safety?
Some people say that raising animals in “crowded” conditions is the reason for needed antibiotic use. But pigs and kids can still get sick in any environment. Confinement housing is a means to provide protection from environmental extremes, predators, wildlife diseases, and stress; therefore reducing disease. Animal density is carefully monitored to provide optimal health.
Besides animal suffering, the impact of animal health on food safety and public health cannot be ignored. Healthy animals make safe food, and conversely marginally healthy animals increase the risk of contamination from pathogens such as Campylobacter and Salmonella7 Additionally, a new report in Clinical Infectious Diseases showed an increased risk of Toxoplasmosis from organic livestock.8 Do you think Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods really want to sell more of these pathogens?In summary, I think the choice of organically raised food products with clear labels is critical, and I am confident the USDA has and will continue to support accurate labeling. However, a problem in labeling should not put food safety, livestock health, and animal welfare at risk.
1Consumer Reports. 2012. Meat on Drugs: The overuse of antibiotics in food animals and what supermarkets and consumers can do to stop it. Available online at: www.MeatWithoutDrugs.org
2Hurd, H.S. et al. 2004. Public Health Consequences of Marcolide Use in Food Animals: A Deterministic Risk Assessment. Journal of Food Protection 67(5):980-992.
3Cox, L.A., Popken D.A. 2006. .
4Anderson, S.A. et al. 2001. Assessment of the impact on human health of resistant Campylobacter jejuni from flouroquinolone use in beef cattle. Food Control 12(1):13-25.
5Animal Health Institute. 2012. Fact or Fiction: Common Antibiotic Myths. Available online at: http://www.ahi.org/issues-advocacy/animal-antibiotics/fact-or-fiction-common-antibiotic-myths/#2
6The Food and Drug Administration. 2012. Guidance for Industry #209: The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food Producing Animals. Available online at: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/AnimalVeterinary/GuidanceComplianceEnforcement/GuidanceforIndustry/UCM216936.pdf
7Coucil for Agricultural Science and Technology. 2012. The Direct Relationship between Animal Health and Food Safety Outcomes. Available online at: http://www.cast-science.org/publications/?the_direct_relationship_between_animal_health_and_food_safety_outcomes&show=product&productID=155971
8Jones, J.L, Dubey, J.P. 2012. Foodborne Toxoplasmosis. Clinical Infectious Diseases. Epub ahead of print.