The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production report released in 2008 was highly critical of most aspects of modern livestock and poultry production systems. The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming has petitioned Congress to enact legislation significantly restricting the use of antibiotics in food producing animals as a means of reducing the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that are human pathogens. Pew recently held a press event in Denmark to highlight the difference between the Danish and the United States' approach to antibiotic use in livestock and poultry. Denmark has banned the use of so-called antibiotic growth promoters.

"It is disappointing to me that a number of groups like Pew work so hard and use a number of untruths to essentially disparage what is a remarkable system that we have in this country for feeding people with low cost food," said Dr. Scott Hurd, former deputy acting under secretary, food safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dr. Richard Raymond, former undersecretary, food safety, USDA, said that Denmark's experience is actually not a success story. He said that Danish farmers have seen an increase in the number of sick animals and a 110 percent increase in the use of antibiotics to treat these animals, and many of these antibiotics are important for human medicine.

Not using science

In a conference call arranged by the Animal Agriculture Alliance, Hurd addressed the assertion in the popular press that there is "a growing body of scientific evidence" that antibiotic use in farm animals plays a major role in the development of antibiotic resistance in human medicine. Hurd suggested that when evaluating phrases like "growing scientific body of evidence," one needs to look at the scientific literature and not the number of repeated news reports. "There has never been a scientifically peer-reviewed risk assessment showing a demonstrable risk from current on farm practices, so I don't see that weight of scientific evidence," he said. "That is one of the concerns that I have with the Pew report, that it doesn't use the appropriate methodology for review of scientific literature to make its suppositions. Therefore, I assume from that that it doesn't really intend to be scientifically based and that it is just pushing a given preset agenda."

Raymond said, "I believe that the information that is being spread is often wrong, sometimes from the industry standpoint and from the people that don't want us to consume animals. The statement that 80 percent of all antibiotics are used in [farm] animals is inflammatory and doesn't represent the true issue, but also the statement [sometimes made by animal agriculture] that all antibiotics are prescribed under the supervision of veterinarians is equally wrong."

Raymond went on to explain that 40 percent of all antibiotics used in food producing animals and poultry are compounds like ionophores, which are used as coccidiostats, and these are never used in human medicine. Another 42 percent of antibiotic usage in farm animals are oxy- and chloro-tetracyclines, which are used as growth promoters, according to Raymond. "Oxy- and chloro-tetracycline have not been prescribed by any reputable [human] health care provider in over 30 years," said Raymond, who is a physician. "If they have been, it has been as an extremely poor third or fourth choice for treating Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. They are not important in the armory of any health care professional."

Raymond said that a discussion of the potential impact of antibiotic use in animals on antibiotic resistance in human medicine should focus on the remaining 18 percent of antibiotic usage, not the 82 percent accounted for by ionophores and the tetracyclines.

Coming changes

The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming is very critical of Congress for not passing legislation to restrict the use of antibiotics in food producing animals. Raymond said that regulators have not been inactive in this area, and that the FDA has new rules on antibiotic use in farm animals waiting at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He stated that the rule-making process results in a more science-based end result than does the legislative process.

Raymond also added that the rule-making procedure is more transparent and science based than Congressional action will ever be. "Congress is not the right tool to use to make changes based on science; Congress is all about politics and getting reelected," Raymond said. "[The] FDA has done their job based on science." Dr. John Glisson, retired department head of population health and avian medicine, University of Georgia, and current vice president, U.S. Poultry & Egg Association (USPOULTRY), said, "The FDA has taken a much more thoughtful and deliberate route. You have to admire how they have taken the pressure and done the right thing."

Food affordability

Raymond talked about going to a conference in Switzerland recently where he had to pay $105 for a hamburger. He said that if the U.S. changes its agricultural practices to what the Pew group and other activists are calling for, we will have those kind of prices here in the U.S. "We have the safest, most economical source of animal protein in the world here in the U.S.," he said.