With fall harvest season in full swing, there was good news from the USDA for consumers who prefer to buy their produce, meat, dairy and eggs directly from farmers: the number of farmer’s markets in the United States has grown by 13% over the past year. According to the agency, 5,274 farmer’s markets are now operating nationwide, up from 4,685 reported in 2008 (a gain of 589 markets). The USDA has just launched the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative to help develop local and regional food systems and spur economic opportunity.
When it comes to public relations there is spin and there is downright deceit. A recent press release from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) on the potential link between antibiotic resistant bacteria and industrialized farming definitely falls into the latter category. And it doesn’t help matters when the modern journalistic practice is to simply copy and paste this kind of industry PR without a second thought – particularly when we’re talking about a matter of life and death.
So what’s ruffled my feathers? At issue here is a statement released by National Pork Producers Council President Doug Wolf on the new Government Accountability Office report, Antibiotic Resistance: Agencies Have Made Limited Progress Addressing Antibiotic Use in Animals. Wolf says, “Not only is there no scientific study linking antibiotic use in food animals to antibiotic resistance in humans, as the U.S. pork industry has continually pointed out, but there isn’t even adequate data to conduct a study.” He continues, “The GAO report on antibiotic resistance issued today confirms this.”
Wolf’s comments are hogwash and he knows it. The truth is that the GAO report does nothing of the sort, nor was that ever its intention. Even from the report title it’s already pretty clear what the overall conclusion is: key government agencies – namely the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) which are primarily responsible for ensuring food safety in the U.S. – are not doing enough to combat the growing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria to public health. Far from “confirming” Wolf’s position, the GAO report states that, “Antibiotics have saved millions of lives, but antibiotic use in food animals contributes to the emergence of resistant bacteria that may affect humans.”
What’s more, the GAO provided the USDA and HHS with a draft of the report for review and comment and both departments agreed with the GAO’s recommendations for urgent changes to ensure that the correct data is recorded. It’s there in black and white. So I hope you can understand my utter indignation when I read a so-called ‘news’ item about this very same GAO report on the hitherto balanced and respected Meatingplace.com with a headline of “GAO can’t find link between antibiotic use in food animals and human resistance.” Rather than evaluate the report themselves it would appear that Meatingplace took the spin from the NPPC and ran it as fact.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that the National Pork Producers Council has fed the media with this kind of disinformation. In 2010, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council, American Meat Institute and other industry bodies issued a joint statement which claimed, “there is no conclusive scientific evidence that shows the use of antibiotics on farms contributes significantly to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans.”
The statement above flies in the face of fact. Only the willfully ignorant could ignore the recent World Health Organization (WHO) report which states that the “effectiveness of critically important antimicrobials for human medicine should not be compromised by inappropriate over-use and/or misuse in the non-human sector.” If we really had nothing to worry about, why did Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, warn earlier this year that, “In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated”? Why did the WHO dedicate World Health Day 2011 – an annual global PR initiative to highlight a priority area of concern to the WHO – to the very plight of combating the rampant rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria?
When it comes to protecting your future health, and the health of your family, who would you trust? A motley crew of lobbying organizations whose industry-funded objective is to protect and promote the interests (i.e., profit) of companies that control the industrialized livestock farming industry above all else? Or the World Health Organization (WHO), a world renowned specialized agency of the United Nations that acts as a coordinating authority on international public health?
Scientists have known for years that intensive farming systems provide a perfect breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant disease-causing bacteria. And this isn’t something that’s just happening in other countries: it’s happening in our own backyards. It is also killing Americans every year and unless we do something about it now, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. And while the NPPC is unable to put science ahead of profit, the United States Department of Agriculture has already admitted the link.
Recent cases of antibiotic-resistant E. coli, Salmonella and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) have all been linked to industrial farming. A recent study by University of Iowa found MRSA in swine and swine workers in the United States. The investigators found a strain of MRSA, known as ST398, in a swine production system in the Midwest. “Because ST398 was found in both animals and humans, it suggests transmission between the two,” said the lead author of the study. “Our findings also suggest that once MRSA is introduced, it may spread broadly among both swine and their caretakers. Agricultural animals could become an important reservoir for this bacterium.” This begs the question, “Who is the NPPC really representing?” By denying the existence of the link between the use of antibiotics and the obvious threat to farmers’ health and livelihood the NPPC demonstrates complete disregard, if not contempt for the farmers it allegedly represents.
NPPC’s position shows a failure of industry to address systemic problems that are threatening public health. A nationwide study published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal in April 2011 found “unexpectedly high levels” of antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in fresh meat and poultry from grocery stores. Analyzing 136 samples of beef, chicken, pork and turkey from 26 retail grocery stores in five major U.S. cities, researchers found that nearly half of the meat and poultry samples—47 percent—were contaminated with S. aureus, and more than half of those bacteria—52 percent—were resistant to at least three antibiotics. The most recent incident was the outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg this summer, which was linked to a single Cargill meat processing plant in Arkansas, killing one and sickening more than 80 people. Cargill’s plant reopened over the summer, only to close again just weeks later with a further recall of contaminated meat.
When it comes to matters of global human health, surely honesty and transparency must always prevail? Unfortunately, history tells us otherwise. We know that during the 1970s the tobacco lobby fought blood, tooth and nail to protect its own corporate interests, despite overwhelming evidence that they were killing their customers. In its fight for survival, we can expect the industrial farming lobby to do all it can to protect itself.