Warring reports on animal ag's impact

Oct 28, 2013

— Recent Pew report slams ag on antibiotic resistance, welfare issues

There’s a war of scientific words going on about agriculture. Unfortunately, you are likely to hear just one side on the evening news or online. And that side is the one trumpeting the message that you—the food animal producer— are wrong and risking the health of humanity.

Last week saw the release of a pair of reports that both tracked the progress of animal agriculture in recent years. The more heralded report came from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (Pew Commission) and the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

The other report was produced by the nonprofit Alliance for Animal Agriculture (AAA) and directly challenged what it describes as Pew’s report “based on emotional appeals and misinformation, rather than sound science and practicality.” It also outlines the advances made in the world of animal agriculture in recent years, particularly in the area of judicious antibiotic use.

The reports

The Pew Commission’s report— “Industrial Food Animal Production in America: Examining the Impact of the Pew Commission’s Priority Recommendations” (Pew report)—is the five-year sequel to an earlier report published in 2008. The 2008 report was charged “to review the dominant industrial farm animal production system and to develop consensus recommendations to solve the problems they found.”

The 2008 report found that “the present system of producing food animals in the U.S. is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.”

The new report covers the progress—or, as it claims, the “appalling lack of progress”—that has been made in the interceding five years.

“The failure to act by the USDA and FDA [Food and Drug Administration], the lack of action or concern by the Congress, and continued intransigence of the animal agriculture industry have made all of our problems worse,” claimed Robert S. Lawrence, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, in announcing the report’s release.

As with the 2008 report, the new report makes several recommendations regarding animal agriculture:

• Ban “non-therapeutic” use of antibiotics in food animal production.

• Define “non-therapeutic” use of antibiotics in food animals.

• Reclassify what it calls “industrial farm animal production” as an industrial operation particularly in regard to waste, liquid waste and permitting.

• Phase out what it called “the most intensive and inhumane production practices” within a decade. Highlighted practices were gestation stalls for sows, and cage-based housing for laying hens.

The report by the AAA is in direct opposition to the Pew report, right down to its name: “What the Center for a Livable Future, Pew Commission & others aren’t telling you about food production.”

AAA’s report is a selfadmitted summary of recent advancements and ongoing efforts within the realm of food animal production.

“This summary document provides a glimpse into how each specific industry—from cattle to poultry to swine—has continued to enhance its programs to ensure they are using antibiotics judiciously, caring for their animals humanely and producing the safest products possible,” wrote Kay Johnson Smith, President and CEO of AAA, in the report’s conclusion.

Compared to the Pew report, the AAA report is a descriptive document rather than an attempt at a scientific one. While it references a variety of other sources, it does not cite sources or provide a reference list of specific sources used as the Pew report does. It is worth noting the reference list of the Pew report is not limited to scientific studies, but also includes significant numbers of legislative documents, opinion pieces run in mainstream media outlets, and even a couple animal rights groups.

The release of the AAA report was accompanied by a teleconference with a number of food and animal agriculture experts, most of whom contributed to the report. The guest experts discussed the AAA report, commented on the Pew Commission’s report, and fielded questions from those in “attendance.”

The general consensus of the guest experts was that the Pew reports (current and past) glossed over scientific details, poorly communicated the science it used and did so in a way to serve “their agenda.” There were even accusations the Pew Commission “cherry-picked” studies to support that purported agenda, which was described as “anti-modern agriculture.”

Scientific scuffles

One of the biggest areas of contention between the two reports is the topic of antibiotic use in food animals and the role that plays in antibiotic resistance. Others claim conflicts existed, but none were more heavily highlighted nor so readily carried in the wider media and online following the Pew report’s release.

“The practice of administering antimicrobials to food animals for purposes other than treatment of a diagnosed illness or control of an existing outbreak has been commonplace in [industrial food animal production] for several decades,” read the Pew report’s introduction to the topic of antibiotic resistance.

“Many of the drugs used in this context are no different from those used in human medicine,” it went on to claim.

Dr. Richard Raymond, former Under Secretary of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service and contributor to the AAA report, took severe issue with this claim during the AAA teleconference.

“Forty percent of all antibiotics used in animals are ionophores, which have never been approved for use in human medicine, and there’s nothing like them approved for human medicine. So immediately we remove 40 percent from the discussion.

“Another 42 percent are oxytetracyclines and chlortetracyclines which are used as growth promotants.” He described two antibiotic classes as having not been prescribed by “reputable health care professionals” for a number of years.

“If they have been, it has been an extremely poor third or fourth choice for a limited list of diseases such as Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. They are not important antibiotics in the armory of any health care professional.”

Raymond went on to point out that the second and fourth most important categories of antibiotics prescribed for human health—cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones respectively—“comprise 0.3 percent of all antibiotics prescribed for use in animals by veterinarians. The FDA has done a very good job of protecting our health.”

Raymond also took issue with the oft-quoted “80 percent” statistic regarding the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, a statistic the Pew report cited frequently. He called it “inflammatory” and misrepresenting the issue of antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance to consumers.

The AAA report noted that the recently-adopted FDA guidance, “Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food Producing Animals” calls for phasing out the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion.

“Once this policy is fully implemented, all medically important antibiotics used in food animals will be used only for therapeutic purposes at the express direction of a veterinarian.”

Interestingly, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (often called MRSA) featured heavily in the Pew report’s highlighted antibiotic-resistant pathogens. The report discussed the cost of MRSA, both in dollars and deaths, at length.

While MRSA has long been known to be a dangerous antibiotic-resistant threat to human health, discussing it between claims about animal agriculture spurred more ire in Raymond.

“The conversations about MRSA’s connection to feed animals is totally inappropriate,” he said hotly at the teleconference.

After giving a bit of history on MRSA and methicillin, he continued, saying “methicillin is not used in animals. It is not prescribed for animals. And yet we have MRSA in the community.”

Raymond continued on the history lesson, explaining that MRSA was first discovered in 1960, one year following the development of methicillin. In the following decades “almost every single case of MRSA was contracted by a patient in a hospital. It had nothing to do with animals raised for food, but yet it’s a scary bug so the Pew and others like to try to link MRSA to the animal industry and it’s just totally, totally inappropriate.”

Raymond also referred to the recent report by the Centers for Disease Control (covered in WLJ’s Sept. 23 edition; Vol. 92, No. 51) which pointed to hospitals, nursing homes and the irresponsible prescription and use of antibiotics in human medicine as the most concerning in the realm of antibiotic resistance.

Another issue of scientific conflict between the two reports was on the matter of animal welfare. One of the Pew report’s recommendations is to “phase out intensive confinement,” as well as a couple other management-related suggestions.

Unlike its section on antibiotic resistance, the Pew report’s section dedicated to animal welfare did not cite any scientific studies, nor did it support its claims of confinement systems being injurious to animal and/or human health. The section was an overview of legislative and litigative efforts to end production practices like gestation stalls, and some references went back to animal rights organizations.

“Efforts to eliminate swine gestation crates, battery cages for laying hens, and tethered veal crates by means of state legislation and through work of the Humane Society of the United States and other groups are very encouraging,” the report read.

This topic garnered a lot of attention in the AAA report, as well as at the AAA teleconference. In conclusion to the AAA report, Smith wrote: “While the [animal agriculture] industry has been working to improve, groups like the PEW Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and the Center for a Livable Future have been issuing reports and calling certain production practices into question while offering no real solutions. These reports are based on emotional appeals and misinformation, rather than sound science and practicality.”

Dr. Janeen Salak-Johnson, associate professor of animal science at the University of Illinois and one of the guest experts at the teleconference was particularly concerned about decisions based on emotions. She spoke out frequently against it, particularly on the topic of gestation stalls.

“A lot of people don’t like the way a sow looks in a gestation stall. They don’t know all the principles behind that. …I’m first to say that the gestation stall should probably be improved in some aspects, but to simply eliminate it and form group pens actually has unintended consequences.”

Among those unintended consequences brought up in the teleconference and in the AAA generally focused on negative social interaction between sows in group housing. This can include fighting and subsequent injuries, as well as less-dominant sows being prevented from eating.

“Farmers want all pigs to receive adequate food and water and be free of injury, so gestation stalls were introduced as a means to help protect and nurture each pig,” read the AAA report in the section on swine well-being.

Warring words

Dr. Scott Hurd, former deputy under secretary for food safety at USDA and another of the experts at the teleconference, also had choice words for the Pew report.

“It’s quite disappointing to me that groups like Pew work so hard and use a great deal of untruths to essentially disparage what is the remarkable system we have in this country for feeding people with low cost food,” said Hurd.

In a blog posted the same day of the teleconference, Hurd pointed out a number of shortcomings in the structure and process of the new and 2008 Pew reports.

“Careful scientific critique of these Pew reports strongly suggests they have ‘cherry-picked’ selected papers to make a politically motivated point. Pew purposefully not giving the whole story is misleading to the consumer and is misinforming them about the facts of animal agriculture as a whole.”

He also quoted a review of Pew’s 2008 report by the American Veterinary Medical Association: “Both in substance and in approach…the Pew report contains significant flaws and major deviations from both science and reality. These missteps lead to dangerous and under-informed recommendations about the nature of our food system—and shocking recommendations for interventions that are scarcely commensurate with risk.

“The report is, in many ways, a prolonged narrative designed to romanticize the small, independent farmer, while vilifying larger operations, based simply upon their size.”

“I don’t quite understand why it’s so important for some people like Pew to make it difficult for farmers to do what they do,” said Hurd in closing at the teleconference. “I think it’s important that we try to set the facts straight.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor