It’s frustrating being targeted as the cause of a problem — the threat of antibiotic resistance — when there are multiple factors involved. But the answer isn’t ignoring industry’s role.
A recent commentary on the Obama administration’s White House Forum on Antibiotic Stewardship attempted to offer support for continued use of antibiotics in livestock production.
Unfortunately, all it did was exactly the opposite.
In a piece titled, “With Little Regard for Science, Obama Targets Livestock and Meat,” writer Dave Juday tried to make the case that other factors are much more important in not only understanding the issue, but in crafting a mitigation strategy.
“The Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] have (sic) concluded that the most acute problem is ‘poor antimicrobial stewardship among humans,’ ” Juday wrote. “The most resistant organisms found in hospitals originate in the hospitals themselves, according to the CDC’s director, Dr. Tom Frieden. Also, people who don’t complete their full prescription of antibiotics add to microbial resistance.”
All of that is 100 percent correct, and he doubled down by adding that, “In reality, the vast majority of antibiotics used by livestock are not those used in human medicines, and the veterinary antibiotics which are used in livestock production are strictly regulated by the FDA.”
Again, 100 percent accurate.
But equally ineffective, in my judgment.
Let’s draw an analogy. Instead of “antibiotic resistance,” let’s consider the problem of “automobile injuries.” Both are broadly defined problems with multivariate causes, agreed? In other words, there is no one single issue involved with either problem, I think most people would agree.
Now, we don’t have to suppose that some advocacy group is out there focusing on only one aspect of the large and complex issue of automobile safety — there are multiple non-profits working to advance the safety and “crash-resistance” of modern automobiles.
These groups regularly criticize car manufacturers for failing to engineer or install state-of-the-art safety features that could protect drivers and passengers in the event of a crash. Often, these attacks are pointed, virulent and nasty, and in truth, the American auto industry has a long history of opposing government mandates that would require that cars be sold with basic safety features, such as seat belts, as well as more sophisticated technology, such as ABS braking systems.
Anyone who supports the manufacturing of safer cars would have a pretty strong argument that such a development would positively impact the statistics related to injuries and deaths among drivers and their passengers.
Extending the analogy
Now suppose, however, that an auto industry-funded organization decided to play the “Wait — look over here!” card in regard to automobile injuries, and began aggressively advancing the notion that the real problem is highway safety. If only we would engineer better roads, improve the design and construction of freeways and engineer the nation’s roadways to eliminate the dangers of blind curves and narrow bridges and tricky on ramps, such an organization would suggest, we could cut down the carnage that occurs annually during the nation’s billions of individual automobile journeys.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that most people would agree that, yes, engineering safer highways would address part of the problem. An equally large majority, I believe, would also be justified in pointing out that better roads alone won’t solve the problem, just as merely designing better crash-resistant cars wouldn’t eliminate all injuries or deaths, either.
The point is this: Automobile injuries are the result of a complex of causes, from poorly designed or improperly maintained roads to cars that aren’t engineered to optimally protect drivers and passengers to such social issues as people driving while drunk or on medications or at an advanced age that impairs their vision and reaction times.
A complete list of causes would go on even longer.
Any lobbying group, whether representing manufacturers or consumers, that demanded that government deal primarily with only one of the myriad of factors related to automobile injuries — to the virtual exclusion of others — would properly be called to task for tunnel vision (at best) or venal self-interest (at worst).
I submit that is exactly what is happening with the issue of antibiotic resistance and the broad-based efforts on several fronts simultaneously to attempt to curb a serious problem everyone in authority agrees is impacted by a complex of variables.
When industry and its supporters constantly try to target only certain factors — such as overuse of antibiotics in human health care — to the exclusion of the role of antibiotic usage in animal agriculture, it only undermines their credibility, and the legitimacy of noting that producers are not the primary cause of the problem.
We know intuitively that significantly reducing the numbers and the severity of automobile injuries would take a concerted effort on numerous fronts: Better engineered cars, safer highways and far more personal responsibility when people get behind the wheel.
Which of those factors is most important? That’s not the point. They’re all important. And we ignore any of them at the risk of failing to make a dent in the statistics.
Likewise, the road map to controlling the problems related to antibiotic resistance among human microbial pathogens must also include initiatives on multiple fronts: tighter control of clinical use of antibiotic drugs, better patient compliance and improvements in the deployment of antibiotics in animal agriculture.
To criticize advocates who focus primarily on only one of the many aspects of the problem, to pretend that they are illegitimate because there are other factors involved on which they don’t focus, is wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating.
We can’t “solve” the problem of automobile injuries — even as we recognize that there is no “solution,” only incremental improvement — by limiting our efforts to only one of the many factors involved.
Likewise, progress in reducing the incidence of life-threatening infections from pathogens resistant to an array of clinically important antibiotics isn’t accomplished by demanding that only causes other than animal agriculture be considered the core of the strategy.
I understand the motivation for wanting to point the finger at doctors who overprescribe antibiotics, or hospitals that aren’t making an all-out effort to prevent the spread of resistant bacteria. It’s frustrating being the target of relentless criticism, when in fact, there is plenty of blame to go around.
But investing a lot of effort and energy trying to deflect and distract from agriculture’s role in the complex and dangerous threat to our collective well-being represented by growing incidents of antibiotic resistance is the wrong way to go.
The commentators and spokespeople who do so may be well-meaning, but in the end, they’re not helping.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator