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Pig Farmers to USDA: Too Many Antibiotics? La-La-La, We Can't Hear You

[***UPDATE: The USDA issued a clarification on the WSJ story, which I wrote about here.]

In Congressional testimony on Wednesday, Edward Knipling, head of the USDA's research branch, said that hog farmers are overusing antibiotics and could be exposing Americans to antibiotic-resistant bacteria like E.coli and campylobacter. To this the pork industry replied, ears covered, "La, la, la, la, la."

A spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council told the WSJ that there's "no scientific, peer-reviewed study showing a definitive link" between antibiotic use on farms and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that sicken humans. On its web site, the group further defends its use of antibiotics:

Existing FDA regulations provide adequate safeguards against antibiotic resistance. NPPC actively participates in public discussions on the use of antibiotics....The National Pork Board's "Take Care: Use Antibiotics Responsibly" is a program that demonstrates the pork industry's fullest intention to provide for both veterinarians and producers the principles and guidelines for guarded antibiotic use.
In other words, move along, nothing to see here. The pork industry is not alone in its prodigious use of antibiotics. They're also commonly given at low levels to chickens, turkeys and beef cattle for reasons other than just treating disease. Antibiotics are used to promote growth and prevent disease, with the drugs often laced into feed so it goes indiscriminately to all animals.

By denying that this casual use of powerful drugs is a problem, the National Pork Producers Council appears unwilling to acknowledge that the ground has fundamentally shifted under them. Both the USDA and FDA have expressed concerns. Respected scientists are calling for animal producers to dramatically cut back. More consumers are seeking out antibiotic-free meat. And a variety of countries -- New Zealand, Thailand, Korea and the EU -- have put restrictions on antibiotic use.

And as for the NPPC's contention that there's no research linking antibiotic use on farms to human illness, that deserves a little deconstructing. Maryn McKenna, a germ expert and author of the book Superbug, details the NPPC's argument:

[They're saying] that the case has not been proven on an individual level. That is, no one has given antibiotics to a single chicken, identified the development of resistance in that chicken, traced the spread of resistant organisms from the chicken (into its manure and thus into the environment, and into its flesh at slaughter and thus into the retail chain), prospectively identified a single free-living human whom that now resistant organism is going to affect, and monitored the development of illness in that human.
McKenna goes on to point out that such an experiment would be impossible and unethical. But here's what science has determined: Dutch researchers have identified identical, highly drug-resistant E. coli in chickens on the farm, in store-bought chicken meat and then also in humans, strongly suggesting that resistance is moving from poultry raised with antibiotics to humans via food.

And here in the U.S., the FDA has tracked the presence of lots of antibiotic resistant bacteria in supermarket chicken, turkey, pork and beef. How did these superbugs get there? Presumably from the farm, where they developed in response to the chronic presence of low levels of antibiotics. Or maybe it was the germ fairy.

The pork industry may not have the unrealistically cut and dried forensic proof it claims to need. But there's already enough information out there to connect the dots -- at least for anyone whose salary doesn't depend on their not making the connection.

Image by Flickr user sokabs

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