The use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics — sorry, I meant “health maintenance products” — in animal agriculture may be an unsettled controversy, or a done deal, depending on which side of the proverbial barnyard fence you’re on.

What’s firmly settled, however, is who’s winning the war of words on this issue.

Not only have a string of investigations and allegations raised the specter of resistant pathogens that have become a clinical threat to human health, but the media coverage of the issue has become an echo chamber for the activists demanding a that industry be banned from routine use of antibiotics.

The latest salvo in the battle is a report released by Friends of the Earth and five other eco-activist groups called “Chain Reaction II.” As you’d expect, the opening sentences are a scathing attack, not just on antibiotics but on the producers who use them:

“A stunning 70% of all antibiotics important in human medicine in the U.S. are sold for use in animal agriculture,” the report began. “These lifesaving drugs are fed routinely to animals that are not sick in order to promote growth and prevent diseases that spread easily in crowded, filthy factory farm conditions.”

(As an aside, if aliens arrived on Earth in a flying saucer and began to observe our urban lifestyles, would it really be implausible for them to note than people seem to be living in “crowded, filthy conditions that promote the spread of disease?”)

It’s expected that groups opposed to the use of veterinary antibiotics would demagogue the issue, stating that, “Public health agencies have declared antibiotic resistance a top health threat in the U.S. — and the rampant misuse of antibiotics in livestock production is a major cause.”

Pretty much the same rhetoric that’s been tossed out there for the last decade. Even (allegedly) objective scientists have grown comfortable aligning themselves with such over-the-top propaganda, even as they tout their personal credentials as a badge of credibility.

A study in shoddy reporting

However, what’s more troubling is that media coverage of the antibiotic resistance issue has done a slow drift toward an anti-industry position. So-called objective reporting is starting to sound more like the partisans at Friends of the Earth, rather than sober, serious reporting.

Consider how the Chicago Tribune summarized the argument that Chain Reaction II report was trying to make:

“Routinely feeding antibiotics to animals raised for food has been linked to the surge in resistant strains of bacteria that cause human illnesses, which adds about 23,000 additional deaths annually and boosts healthcare costs by $55 million, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Take note of what I would call a serious breach of journalistic practice in that sentence.

Yes, there is evidence that routine use of low-level antibiotics in animal agriculture has been “linked” to a “surge” in the spread of resistant pathogens. But linked is not the same as causation, and more importantly, the Tribune story then goes on to “link” farm use of antibiotics to the overall impact of all antibiotics resistance.

The estimate — and it’s a best-guess estimate — of “excess deaths,” as CDC likes to call them, due to resistant microbial pathogens totals 23,000 a year. But the implication is that antibiotic usage in agriculture is the cause of all 23,000, when in fact CDC and other public health agencies have made it clear that the culprits in this scenario are doctors, not farmers.

It’s the over-prescription of antibiotics in human clinical medicine, especially in response to patient demands, that is most closely linked to all those excess deaths. But if you re-read the Tribune’s summary, it implies that producers are killing 23,000 people a year, just so they can raise livestock in crowded, filthy factory farm conditions.

Given the way that media, much less activists, portrays the situation, is it any wonder why the public leans toward the viewpoint that animal antibiotics are bad news?

While at the same time, should they or a loved one come down with the sniffles, or an ear infection, or a persistent cough, you’d best believe they’re going to badger their doctor to call in a prescription — pronto.

I don’t know that the animal agriculture, meat and poultry processors, retailers and foodservice operators are going to be able to continue much longer trying to justify the use of health maintenance products in livestock production.

A definitive scientific assessment of the role that such usage plays in the larger problem of bacterial resistance is not yet available.

But one thing is certain: In the war of words, industry advocates versus anti-industry activists, the former is getting trounced by the latter. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator