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USDA on Antibiotics in Agriculture: Move Along, Nothing to See Here

Last week, I wrote about the pork industry's obstinate attitude towards antibiotic use on farms, citing a Dow Jones newswire story -- later picked up by the WSJ -- entitled "Hog Farmers Overuse Antibiotics, Government Data Show." This story was based on comments the USDA's Edward Knipling made at a Congressional subcommitee hearing, which the USDA now says were misinterpreted. The agency has even issued a clarification stating that Knipling never said pork producers overuse antibiotics or that they could be exposing Americans to harmful antibiotic bacteria like E. coli and campylobacter.

But Knipling, the head of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, didn't exactly absolve the pork industry of wrongdoing, either. As is so often the case when the USDA wades into a controversial issue that's near and dear to the hearts of large agricultural producers, its thoughts are deeply equivocal and confusingly nuanced. For that we can thank the agency's conflicted dual roles of industry booster and public health guardian, which the NYT's Michael Moss did a great job of chronicling last fall.

Given the confusion, it's worth quoting Knipling directly from the hearing transcript so anyone who's interested can decide for themselves what he was trying to say. Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican from Iowa, the country's biggest pork producing state, asks Knipling whether the USDA's research into antibiotic alternatives is aimed at eliminating antibiotics. Knipling responds:

Of course, antibiotics, as you say, are used to prevent infectious diseases, or prevent pathogens that would cause food safety concerns. And of course, the issue is the fairly widespread use of this is then leading to resistance of these pathogens, which also then have implications for human health.
Later, talking about NARMS, the joint effort between the USDA, FDA and CDC to monitor antibiotic resistant bacteria in the food supply, Knipling says:
It does suggest that yes, in some cases, there are problems and concerns. But also that data shows that that this is not as severe an issue as it might be otherwise portrayed.....

.....Some of that data and trends show that the resistance is not developing to the extent as otherwise might be portrayed. In other instances, yes. It depends on the antibiotics themselves, the type, and the animal and the whole combination of factors.

At this point, Latham cuts him off and announces he has to leave, so we don't get any further detail about those instances where Knipling thinks there is cause for concern.

Based on this interchange, it seems wrong for Dow Jones to have concluded that Knipling said "hog farmers are overusing antibiotics on their herds and that may be creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria that pose a threat to human health." Knipling may think that, but he didn't actually say it. The paper hasn't commented on its story.

Reporter Bill Tomson probably figured the hearing was worth writing about because it's so rare to see a high-ranking USDA official publicly suggest that industrial agricultural practices are posing a threat to human health. But next time he should probably wait until that's actually been articulated. Assuming that time ever comes.

Image by Flickr user Leo Reynolds

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