You should have read it.  The story was in all the newspapers last month. Issued by the Food and Drug Administration, it was called the NARMS (National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System) study and it created panic in the streets. At least that was what some of the more creative headline writers were counting on.  All powerful bacteria, armed with some serious drug resistance, were invading the meat case.  Consumers were lined up at the county courthouse demanding drug free meat.

The numbers were startling.  As much as 81% of the raw ground turkey tested was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria were found in 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef and 39% of chicken.  Scientists found significant amounts of salmonella and Campylobacter, causing millions of cases of food poisoning a year.  And it was all caused by careless and rampant overuse of antibiotics by the greedy overlords of “industrial farming.”

News like that can make you swear off food completely

It was the Environmental Working Group’s review of the FDA study that created an immediate push back by our friends in Washington.  The headliner, ripped straight from the sensationalistic and panicky yellow journalism of old, cried “Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets.”

The FDA said, “Not so fast, guys. You need a little perspective here.”

The man to go to for some of that perspective is Dr. Michael Doyle, Regents Professor of Food Microbiology and Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. His biography calls him “an active researcher in the area of food safety and security who works closely with the food industry, government agencies, and consumer groups on issues related to the microbiological safety of foods.

“He serves on food safety committees of many scientific organizations and has served as a scientific advisor to many groups, including the World Health Organization, the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Science-National Research Council, the International Life Sciences Institute-North America, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the International Association for Food Protection and the Institute of Food Technologists, and is a member of the National Academies Institute of Medicine.”

Jolley: Five Minutes with Dr. Michael Doyle and those SuperbugsIf you ask him a question about food safety, he will respond calmly and with great authority.  He is a man, after all, who has seen everything and knows his business.  If it’s food safety, he knows what he’s talking about probably better than anyone in the country.  Here is what he had to say about all the excitement stirred up by the EWG headline writers.

Q. Dr. Doyle, the CNN report on the NARM study said the FDA found 81% of ground turkey contained antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Data for beef and other meats showed similar results – an extremely high percentage of contamination.  Is it panic time?

A. Let’s put it in perspective.  You can find antibiotic resistant organisms in the environment, everywhere, they’re quite prevalent. The key is, are they resistant to critically important antibiotics in general?  We’re seeing a reduction in salmonellosis and we’re seeing a reduction in multi-drug resistant strains of salmonella causing human illness.  It’s been happening for some time now; it’s not a 1-year trend.

The use of critically important antibiotics are the issue - drugs that are important to treating human illnesses.  In most cases, those drugs are not an issue.

This definition of multi-drug resistance is, in most cases, bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics.  That NARM report was talking about superbugs, saying those superbugs were present in meat in very high percentages.  They never defined superbug. They seem to be saying that if a bacterium was resistant to one antibiotic, it was a superbug.  In most cases that wouldn’t be considered a superbug.  It has to be resistant to several drugs used for treating human illnesses.

Q. Is there a real difference between drugs used to treat humans and drugs used to treat animals and how they’re applied?

A. Quite frankly, I think we’re seeing less use of drugs used to promote animal growth or for sub therapeutic treatment.  I think those uses are on the decline and my colleagues suggest that within five years we probably won’t be seeing antibiotic use for growth promotion in this country.  Public health concerns are driving that.  And there are other questions being raised – are these drugs really all that useful as growth promotants?  Are there better ways to promote growth? For instance, several studies suggest the use of probiotics can promote growth and that could be the alternative to drugs.

Q. Dr. Gail Hansen, senior officer for the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, a project openly and admittedly aimed at phasing out what it claims is the overuse of antibiotics in food production, claims the use of antibiotics in animals is out of control.  Does she have a point?

A. I don’t know if it’s out of control, that’s a strong statement.  I think we’re going to be seeing less use of antibiotics for growth promotants or subtherapeutic use. 

The reality of it is, even for organic farming, they talk about the need to not use antibiotics.  But what happens when their animals get sick?  Do they treat them?  Well, if they’re humane about it I would hope so. And if they do that, they can’t sell their animals as organic.  They’ll have to sell them as conventional animals.  You still have to treat animals for humane purposes and to make sure those diseases don’t spread to humans.  So we’re still going to have to use antibiotics with animals but we have to do it prudently.

Q. Can we solve the problem here in the U.S.?

A. There’s another point to this whole issue; it’s a global problem.  We can do whatever we want to reduce the use of antibiotics in American animal agriculture but the reality is we’re still going to be influenced by Asia and other parts of the world where they abuse a lot of antibiotics and many of those are the critically important one.  They use them in aquaculture with fish and shrimp and that’s the greatest abuse, I think.  They do it in treating humans in India and other parts of the world where they commonly offer those drugs without prescription.

If you travel globally, you’ll be exposed to multi-drug resistant bacteria, and if we buy food from those locations we’re going to get resistant bacteria coming in with shrimp and fish.  You know most of our Tilapia comes from China – over 70% – and if it isn’t already, it will soon become the #1 source of fish in our diet, surpassing salmon.  Over a billion pounds of shrimp come from Southeast Asia.

Q. How about the European experience? They’ve banned subtherapeutic drug use for some years now.  Has it worked?

A. It has had some unintended consequences.  They’ve had an increased need for therapeutic use of drugs in people and animals because of reduced use of antibiotics used with animals. We need to understand what these consequences are and how to avoid them to do what we can to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal ag production.

There’s another confounding factor associated with this and it was covered in a report that the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) just put out.  It was written by me, Randy Singer at the University of Minnesota, Guy Loneragan at Texas Tech and Morgan Scott at Kansas States.  We talk about antibiotic resistance caused by co-selection and co-resistance, it’s not just when certain antibiotics are used.  Co-selection can lead to resistance not just to the antibiotic used but to other antibiotics as well.  For instance, Zinc can lead to the development of resistance to certain antibiotics.  Resistance is a more complex issue than we realized.  There is no simple solution.  We can’t just ban all those antibiotics used with animals and have the problem fixed.

Q. Can you sum it up for me?

A. To summarize – the antibiotic issue is complex.  Because it is so complex, especially considering co-selection and co-resistance, there is no simple solution.  Banning has unintended consequences.  The shotgun approach won’t fix the problem. 

This is a global issue. No matter what we do here and in Europe, there are a lot of other countries that use antibiotics in ways that aren’t considered acceptable here and in the E.U.  Worldwide practices are leading to antibiotic resistance in foods that we import, largely in aquaculture.

When we go to these countries, we’re being exposed to those antibiotic resistant organisms as well.  It’s not something we can solve with our approach to the problem here in the U.S. and Europe.  It has to be a global approach including Asia and Latin America.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food industry journalist and columnist.