August’s AgSight tackled the controversial issue of antibiotic use in food production and its potential role in development of antibiotic resistance.  That column outlined the concern surrounding the issue with the following explanation: 

So the logic goes like this:   antibiotics fed to livestock at sub-therapeutic levels facilitate establishment of resistant strains of bacteria and absolute containment at the local farm environment proves elusive.    That scenario inevitably put citizens at risk because such strains prove unresponsive to treatment if they are able to cause illness.   Therefore, the argument is that such use must be curtailed and future approval of new antibiotics in livestock should be preempted.  

However, the column also emphasized the importance of not over-simplifying the issue (which critics of animal agriculture are often prone to doing – more later) explaining it is NOT a “drive-by issue.”

Numerous complexities surround development of antibiotic resistance. Unfortunately, that opens the door for lots of rhetoric – concern often gets leveraged to advance ideology.   But simple, knee-jerk reaction to apprehension about resistance fails to advance effective strategies to ensure antibiotic efficacy going forward.  Any suggestion of simple fixes leads to a false sense of security and misses the mark for real defense. What’s really needed is proper assessment and subsequent management of risk – therein enters the need for comprehensive, objective, and science-based strategies.

Dr. Scott Hurd (Iowa State University and former Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety, USDA) clearly outlines that concern and risk are NOT equivalent considerations.  Yes, antibiotic resistant bacteria represent serious considerations from a potential public health hazard standpoint – i.e. concern.   However, establishment of risk surrounding that potential hazard mandates identification of the “causal pathway” in which resistant pathogens cause or exacerbate human illness and ultimately facilitate therapeutic unresponsiveness.   Moreover, such assessment must be made on a “bug-by-drug” basis (pathogen-by-antibiotic foundation:  e.g.  Campylobacter X macrolides interaction).  Blanket categorizations about antibiotic resistance are meaningless.    In other words, concern is a relatively general, vague and non-quantifiable concept - risk is a specific, verifiable and measurable concept.   

Now let’s put all that into practice.    Chicago’s public school system recently (Nov. 1) waded into the issue by announcing plans to begin serving chicken produced without inclusion of antibiotics in the feed ration (i.e. “antibiotic-free” – the term wrongly implies that conventionally-raised product contains antibiotics – another subject for another day).   Students will now have opportunity to purchase the product two or three times per month for the remainder of the academic year.   The announcement establishes a significant public-private partnership around an important public health issue.  That’s admirable.  But let’s dig in a little deeper here.       

The partnership includes the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming (HHIF).  Laura Rogers (Project Director, HHIF) explains that, “Institutional and individual consumers have the power to change industrial farming practices that endanger human health.  The routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock that are not sick is undermining the effectiveness of these life-saving drugs, which leaves children especially vulnerable.  To protect them, we encourage school districts and other large institutional buyers of meat and poultry across the country to follow in Chicago’s trailblazing footsteps.”  Similarly, partner School Food FOCUS (primarily funded by the Kellogg Foundation) released the following statement:  “Antibiotic overuse occurs not just on poultry farms, but through the American livestock industry.” 

Statements surrounding the announcement and the underlying premise possess some important implications that need to be addressed. 

  • First, the statements are misleading and represent fear-mongering about food production – they stir concern but fail to reference risk.   For example, “antibiotic overuse…through the livestock industry.” Or, “industrial farming practices that endanger human health.”  Such caricatures are wholly unsubstantiated.  
  • Second, antibiotic-free chicken will be served only two-to-three times per month.  But if concern about antibiotics making “children especially vulnerable” is really important, then why not also address that risk around the remainder of the meals?   Counting breakfast, 37-to-38 meals remain unaccounted for.  Ostensibly, the school system doesn’t really believe antibiotic-free production is a lynch pin; the intent here is to simply advance a political agenda.        
  • Lastly, the Chicago school system has abandoned science in favor of politics.   Antibiotic resistance is a highly complex issue; any attempt to suggest otherwise is disingenuous.    Rhetoric surrounding the menu option addresses concern, but there’s no mention of risk.   What principle are we teaching with that example?  

In the final analysis, Chicago’s new chicken offering doesn’t advance any real solutions.    Sure, it invokes attention to some potential concern but it completely disregards a meaningful, comprehensive risk management perspective.  And after all, those are two very different considerations.