The eco-activist NGO Environmental Working Group is at again with their “Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets!” scare stories. They’ve been pounding the drum about forcing producers to abandon the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics for years, and have trotted out a 2011 CDC study again, and again, and again in an effort to 1). Fund raise 2). Influence Congress and 3). Generate attention—which takes us right back to No. 1).
“Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are now common in the meat aisles of American supermarkets,” their latest “shocking report” revealed. “These so-called superbugs—salmonella and campylobacter—can trigger foodborne illness and infections that are hard to treat [and] cause 3.6 million cases of food poisoning a year.”
That all sounds ominous, with little to put it in perspective, but let’s try.
First of all, the numbers are inflated. What EWG is quoting are estimates of the number of cases of sickness caused by the various pathogens. Not all cases are reported, of course, but not all cases that require treatment or even hospitalization are confirmed as to the sources of the infection. It’s all based on people’s best guesses as to the causes and the numbers.
More importantly, according to a comprehensive CDC report in 2001—the same one that EWG loves to tout—the situation is improving, not deteriorating.
“The overall incidence for the six key pathogens (campylobacter, listeria, salmonella, E. coli O157, yersinia and vibrio) was 23% lower in 2010 than during 1996 to 1998,” the report stated. “For individual pathogens, the incidence was significantly lower—for E. coli O157 (a 44% decrease) and campylobacter (a 27% decrease).”
Does that sound like cause for apprehension? Or celebration?
The CDC report went on to state that salmonella continues to be problematic, but not primarily because of producers, as EWG implies.
“Salmonella causes an estimated 1.2 million U.S. illnesses annually, approximately 1 million of which are transmitted by food consumed in the United States,” the report stated. “Salmonella can contaminate a wide range of foods, and different serotypes tend to have different animal reservoirs and food sources, making control challenging. Reducing salmonella infection and other foodborne infections will require strong action to prevent food contamination at multiple steps along the farm to the table chain, a prominent lesson from the success in reducing STEC O157 infection. Farmers, the food industry, regulatory agencies, food service, consumers, and public health authorities all have a role.”
Amen to that.
Older is better
What’s just as important from industry’s perspective is working to educate consumers about the nature of antibiotic resistance. It will be a slow and painful process, but it can be done, and it must e done.
The best way is to pose the question: Why does your doctor frequently prescribe newer antibiotics when you or a family member has an infection? If people asked their doctors or pharmacists that question, the answer would be, “Because they are more effective.”
And why are they more effective? Because the pathogens causing the ear infection or respiratory infection have slowly, over years and years of exposure to other more common antibiotics, have become resistant.
That’s what bacteria do. Resistance is their survival mechanism. It’s “normal,” expected ongoing and impossible to curtail. Bacteria survive because they’re incredibly adaptable No matter what the environmental challenge they face—heat, cold, desiccation, competition from other microorganisms, or antibiotics—some of the colonies survive.
Bacteria may lose a lot of battles but they rarely lose the war.
(An interesting side note on resistance: In a major review done by Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine more than a decade ago—when the resistance problem with campylobacter infections was first on the front burner—the study’s author concluded that, “Erythromycin has once again come to be considered the optimal drug for treatment of campylobacter infections. Despite decades of use, the rate of resistance of campylobacter to erythromycin remains quite low. Unlike the ﬂuoroquinolones, erythromycin may be administered safely to children and pregnant women and is less likely than many agents to exert an inhibitory effect on other fecal ﬂora.”
In other words, a good old first-generation antibiotic that EWG wants us all to believe is now useless, thanks to irresponsible, profit-hungry livestock producers, seems to be more effective than the more expensive alternative.
As for the activists’ other key talking point—that animal agriculture is “pumping livestock full of drugs”—it’s unfortunate that the only valid argument in support of low-level use of antibiotics rarely resonates with the public. By implementing biosecurity measures, by focusing on strict sanitation protocols and by providing prophylactic antibiotics, producers have become quite successful at controlling disease and infections that would normally cause significant morbidity among herding animals left to their own devices.
But because the use of preventive doses of antibiotics is rarely used in clinical medicine, most people can’t relate to that strategy. They have no qualms about demanding the strongest antibiotic available when a loved one is sick, but they’d need to be convinced that ongoing dosing in the absence of frank symptoms was a good idea.
And part of their aversion would be the cost!
So producers have a long-term challenge: Educate people that antibiotic resistance is unavoidable. As long as they are drugs, bacteria will find a way to resist, and as CDC noted, the better approach is a comprehensive effort throughout the entire food chain to reduce microbial contamination in food products.
That’s going to be an even tougher sell.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.