The rise of Big Meat-bred super bugs

Despite the public health risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the lobbyist-swayed FDA keeps easing regulations

Topics: AlterNet, Food, Food Business, ,

The rise of Big Meat-bred super bugs (Credit: Reuters/Mike Cassese)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

So far, 2012 is bringing bad news for people who don’t want “free antibiotics” in their food.

AlterNetAntibiotics are routinely given to livestock on factory farms to make them gain weight with less feed and keep them from getting sick in confinement conditions. But the daily dosing, at the same time it lowers feed needs, lowers drug effectiveness and produces antibiotic resistant bacteria or super bugs that can be deadly to people.

This month, researchers found 230 out of 395 pork cuts bought in U.S. stores were contaminated with a super bug called MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Worse — there were “no statistically significant differences” between “conventionally raised swine and swine raised without antibiotics,” reported the researchers.

Why would meat labeled “raised without antibiotics” be as full of super bugs as conventional and factory farmed meat? It can be contaminated with MRSA at the farm, by slaughterhouse workers who carry MRSA or by other meat, if processing equipment is not “cleaned out between runs of certified organic and non-certified organic meats,” say the researchers. A 2009 study of swine workers in Iowa and Illinois found that almost half carried MRSA.

And last month, the FDA scrapped its three-decade-long effort to regulate the use of the popular human antibiotics penicillin and tetracycline in livestock. While the FDA says in the announcement that it “remains concerned about the issue of antimicrobial resistance,” it also says “contested, formal withdrawal proceedings” consume too much of its time and money. For example, withdrawing nitrofurans from livestock use took 20 years, DES (diethylstilbestrol) took seven years and enrofloxacin took five years and cost $3.3 million, says the agency. Hey, we’re just the government that makes the laws and enforces them. They’re Big Meat!



Cynics might have seen the concession to Big Meat coming when a report from a USDA-contracted researcher that asserted that MRSA kills more Americans per year than AIDS “disappeared” from the National Agricultural Library Web site last summer with no explanation, says reporter Tom Philpott. Of course, MRSA is only one antibiotic-resistant germ and not even the one clinicians fear the most anymore. Clinicians also worry about vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE), encouraged by the use of the antibiotic virginiamycin in livestock; Clostridium difficile, a serious intestinal bug developing resistance; and resistant Acinetobacter baumannii which has so afflicted U.S. troops in Iraq it has been dubbed “Iraqibacter.”

And days after the penicillin announcement, there was another concession. The FDA issued new, watered down rules on the use of cephalosporins in livestock (a different type of antibiotic) after Big Meat muscled down the FDA’s original order to prohibit cephalosporins in 2008 (which also disappeared with little explanation). Cephalosporins are antibiotics like Cefzil and Keflex used for pneumonia, strep throat, salmonella and skin and urinary tract infections in humans and one type of antibiotic that Clostridium difficile is developing tolerance to. Over a million human salmonella infections occur in the U.S. every year, resulting in 16,000 people being hospitalized and nearly 600 deaths, reported the Harford Advocate.

In 2008, the FDA announced that there was “evidence that extralabel use of these drugs [cephalosporins] in food-producing animals will likely cause an adverse event in humans and, as such, presents a risk to the public health,” and called for their prohibition. Notice the FDA says “will likely cause” not “could likely cause” and “presents a risk” not “could present a risk”?

But by the time hearings were held two months later and lobbyists had worked their magic, the “Cephalosporin Order of Prohibition,” had somehow become a “Hearing to Review the Advances in Animal Health Within the Livestock Industry.” Prohibition — advances, same idea, right?

At the hearings, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Animal Health Institute, a Big Pharma trade group and the egg, chicken, turkey, milk, pork and cattle industries whined that they could not “farm” without antibiotics because more feed would be required and the animals would get sick from being immobilized over their own manure.

“To raise turkeys without antibiotics would increase the incidence of illness in turkey flocks,” sniveled the National Turkey Federation’s Michael Rybolt. Antibiotics “reduce the level of potentially harmful bacteria which result in infections and sickness,” contended the National Milk Producers Federation Robert D. Byrne (key word, “potential”). Antibiotics decrease the amount of land needed to raise animals and provide a lower-priced “wholesome” product for the public, said one farm operator after another. One even claimed that manure is reduced because animals eat less. In their twisted thinking that would make factory farming green.

While most ag reps at the hearings defended the use of antibiotics for “treatment, prevention and control of disease,” the AVMA’s Christine Hoang actually went so far as to call the less feed that antibiotics make possible a “health-promoting” effect and a “therapeutic use.” Maybe she meant health and therapy for the bottom line.

After the hearings, W. Ron DeHaven, who was the USDA’s top vet before leaving for industry and helming the AVMA, penned a rambling, almost incoherent 18-page letter with 62 footnotes to the FDA. Cephalosporin-resistant “human pathogens” aren’t increasing, says the letter, and even if they are, they’re not affecting human health and even they’re affecting human health, how do you know it’s from the livestock drugs and even if it’s from the livestock drugs, the FDA has no legal authority to ban cephalosporin. Got that?

Alternately maudlin and accusatory, the letter plays on terrorism fears by calling a cephalosporin ban a “food security issue” affecting “the number of animals available for the food supply.” It also plays on humanitarian sentiments by claiming a ban would impede veterinarians’ ability “to relieve the pain and suffering of animals” as if cephalosporins are painkillers and other drugs aren’t available. (And as if antibiotics are given for animals’ welfare instead of revenue welfare.)

Nowhere in the letter is mention of the reason Big Meat won’t let go of antibiotics: The industry is able to raise thousands of animals in crowded conditions that would otherwise kill them for prices as “artificial” as the drugs they are raised on. Big Pharma’s invasion into farming is probably the biggest reason for the demise of family farms which are no longer able to compete in price.

But less than a month after the letter was sent, on November 25, the FDA quietly revoked the prohibition. Good hire, AVMA!

Of course, the revolving door between government/Big Pharma lobbying has a distinguished tradition from Louisiana representative-turned-lobbyist, Billy Tauzin, who presided over the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) until 2010, to former CDC Director Julie Gerberding, who presided over the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak and turned up as — anybody? — head of Merck vaccines when she left the government.

It was not a great surprise that the FDA’s new cephalosporin livestock rules, four years later, had the Agribusiness Seal of Approval. “We thought the original order was too broad and unnecessarily prohibited uses that were not likely to cause problems for human health,” said AVMA’s Dr. Hoang, perhaps tempted to take a bow.

The new rules, which no longer ban cephalosporins, limit “large and lengthy dosing in cattle and swine,” says the New York Times, but allow uses “the F.D.A. has not specifically approved,” and wide use in ducks and rabbits. Yum. Still, the new rules prohibit one unsavory factory farming practice that few are aware of–the “routine injections of cephalosporins into chicken eggs.”

In 2008, while inspecting egg operations, the FDA caught hatcheries injecting cephalosporins directly into chicken eggs, “rather than by the approved method of administering the drug to day-old chicks.” The same year, Tyson Foods was caught injecting eggs with a different antibiotic, the human antibiotic gentamicin, linked to serious side effects. Tyson especially had egg on its face, because the previous year the government disallowed its slogan “Raised Without Antibiotics,” because the ionophores it adds to poultry feed are antibiotics. Ionophores are antibiotics added to poultry and cattle feed for the same “feed efficiency” as produced with other antibiotics but they are not used in humans. Tyson had just backpedaled into the new phrase, “Raised Without Antibiotics That Impact Antibiotic Resistance In Humans,” when it was caught playing fast and loose with gentamicin. Oops.

Several scientific journals report that antibiotics injected into the eggs of layer hens before they hatch produce drug residues in the eggs they lay.

The abuse of antibiotics on farms was one of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s last stands. “It seems scarcely believable that these precious medications could be fed by the ton to chickens and pigs,” he wrote in a bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007 (PAMTA), which has yet to pass. “These precious drugs aren’t even used to treat sick animals. They are used to fatten pigs and speed the growth of chickens. The result of this rampant overuse is clear: meat contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria sits on supermarket shelves all over America,” said Kennedy years before this month’s report on MRSA-contaminated pork. The meat industry, “is rampantly misusing antibiotics in an attempt to cover up filthy, unsanitary living conditions among animals,” echoed Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., who cosponsored the bill and holds degrees in microbiology and public health.

Over 70 percent of antibiotics go to livestock, not people, says the bill and they are used on over 83 percent of grower-finisher swine farms, cattle feedlots, and sheep farms and found in 48 percent of U.S. streams.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Big Meat denies the dangers of antibiotic resistance and/or its part in it and opposes PAMTA. “We don’t believe we are the main cause of antibiotic resistance,” Dave Warner, the National Pork Producers Council’s communications director told Johns Hopkins Magazine. Doctors who overprescribe antibiotics are the culprit, claims Warner, since “There are only 67,000 pork producers.” Only?

The chicken industry also pleads innocent. “We believe our use is responsible and limited,” Richard Lobb, public relations director for the National Chicken Council, told the Hartford Advocate.

What is a surprise is that Big Pharma, supposed medical professionals, is also “flat earth” when it comes to antibiotic resistance. Elanco, the animal division of Eli Lilly, says that, “Monitoring antibiotic resistance in raw meat products is not an appropriate measure to represent the bacteria that reach the consumer,” in an online brochure, “because cooking destroys these bacteria, and dead bacteria cannot transmit antibiotic resistance.” Plus–who minds germs in their food if the germs are dead? Elanco also asserts, in the brochure, that livestock antibiotics keep occurrences of “food poisoning” down as if food poisoning were unrelated to farm conditions! In fact the size and industrialization of US factory farms is such a factor in food poisoning, it drove the passage of new federal food safety laws in 2010.

The Animal Health Institute, representing Abbott, Bayer Healthcare, Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Elanco/Lilly, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer is even more flat earth.

“There is no scientific evidence that antibiotics used in food animals have any significant impact on the effectiveness of antibiotics in people,” it deadpans in a brochure created specifically to oppose PAMTA. “People would be more likely to die from a bee sting than for their antibiotic treatment to fail because of…resistant bacteria in meat or poultry.” But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that hospital-associated infections, which are likely to be antibiotic resistant, cause or contribute to 99,000 deaths each year. Under 100 people die a year from all stinging insects.

And AVMA? “At the heart of this discussion is the premise that the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture directly contributes to bacterial resistance in humans,” says the vet group, urging its members to fight PAMTA. A livestock antibiotic ban in Denmark, “has not shown any clear declines in antibiotic resistance patterns in humans,” says AVMA, though CBS News and Food Safety News find otherwise.

Antibiotic resistant intestinal infections increased in Europe after certain antibiotics were introduced on farms, reported CBS. But after Denmark declared a ban, it “drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and food.” The Denmark’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries reported that the ban resulted in “overall reductions of antimicrobial resistance countrywide,” said Food Safety News.

Nor is AVMA the only veterinary group that sides with industry over animals. The American Association of Swine Veterinarians was one of the groups filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting this week’s Supreme Court ruling, National Meat Association v. Harris, that overturned California’s humane slaughter law. The law was enacted after the 2008 Westland/Hallmark school lunch meat scandal in which cows too sick and weak to walk were videotaped forklifted and “water-boarded” to the slaughter line. The humane slaughter law prohibits buying, selling or receiving downer animals and processing, butchering or selling them for human consumption. It requires non-ambulatory animals to be immediately euthanized.

Big Meat and its veterinarians argued the California law “criminalizes” the work of federal slaughterhouse inspectors who are presumably preventing slaughterhouse atrocities without the California law’s help. But former USDA inspectors Lester Friedlander, DVM and Dean Wyatt, DVM have testified that federal inspection is a mockery that puts the public at risk at the same time it permits appalling animal abuse.

In fact, antibiotics form such a huge part of Big Pharma revenues, antibiotic resistance literally divides medical professionals along species lines. Many medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, support PAMTA out of concern for patient infections while big veterinary groups tend to oppose it.

At first it looked like PAMTA might have a friend in the FDA’s newly appointed deputy commissioner, Joshua Sharfstein, who was a pediatrician and the former food safety staffer for Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. Both he and the newly appointed FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, had public health backgrounds and were not industry insiders.

At a 2009 House Rules Committee meeting, Sharfstein surprised lawmakers by indicating that the FDA supported PAMTA. The ag lobby was enraged because Sharfstein’s remarks implied White House Office of Management and Budget approval, yet there had been no briefing.

“You deliberately tried to blindside some of us on this committee, and we don’t appreciate that,” barked Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, former House agriculture subcommittee on livestock chairman, to Michael Taylor, FDA senior adviser on food safety (considered a friend of agribusiness, until the Sharfstein remarks).

But by early 2011, Kennedy had died, Sharfstein had left the FDA abruptly and without comment, and Big Meat had already showed lawmakers where they could put their cephalosporin ban. Congress seemed to have little appetite left to go up against Big Meat.

So it’s no surprise that in 2012, the FDA is waving through major livestock antibiotics, attaching Mickey Mouse restrictions on others, and U.S. meat is full of super bugs — even meat labeled “raised without antibiotics.”

Martha Rosenberg frequently writes about the impact of the pharmaceutical, food and gun industries on public health. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and other outlets

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