CONSUMER Reports has managed to generate headlines for the food world yet again with its recent research that found that 90% of 257 samples of ground turkey meat and patties tested positive for at least one major class of bacteria.
More important to this discussion, Consumer Reports further indicated that more than half of the samples were resistant to three or more different classes of antibiotics. However, bacteria isolated from samples labeled as "organic" or some other antibiotic-free designation were resistant to fewer classes of antibiotics.
Such a story isn't new for Consumer Reports. The organization has published findings from a consumer poll indicating that a majority of respondents favored purchasing meat products from antibiotic-free production systems.
The implication is that the source of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is animal agriculture (there's no mention of risk assessment or management from a human medicine perspective), so, therefore, purchasing such product would solve the problem.
As for the recent report, the responses followed the same thinking.
For example, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) put it this way: "Another study, another confirmation that we are throwing away one of the greatest achievements in medical history: the development of the antibiotic."
Similarly, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.) commented, "It's shameful that the Food & Drug Administration has abandoned its responsibility to protect the health and safety of Americans in favor of protecting an industry it is supposed to be regulating. The link between overuse of antibiotics in food animals and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food is as clear as day, yet FDA refuses to take action."
At the surface, that all sounds definitive, but given the results, we're left with lots of unanswered questions.
For starters, the National Turkey Federation appropriately countered that ciprofloxacin hasn't been utilized in poultry production for almost eight years. How, then, do we account for ciprofloxacin resistance in the Consumer Reports study?
Meanwhile, Slaughter advocates eliminating antibiotic use in animal agriculture as the AMR fix, saying, "Antibiotic use in food animals must be limited to prevent the inadvertent creation of superbugs that are too powerful for own medicine."
If that's really the solution, what explanation is there for the ground turkey samples from antibiotic-free production systems also possessing AMR bacteria?
Interestingly enough, another important antibiotic resistance story made news as the Consumer Reports story was breaking. The other headline reads something to the effect of, "Gonorrhea 'superbug' worse than AIDS."
At the risk of stating the obvious, that news story should be sufficient evidence that AMR is not solely derived from antibiotic use in animal agriculture. But all that gets overlooked in the rush to make a compelling case.
Apparently, headlines matter more than science. Accusations and claims make for good sound bites; they're effective in amplifying fear and promoting politics. However, they ignore the intricacies of AMR, including indiscriminate prescription writing on the human health side.
Consumer Reports' newest study is important. AMR is a very serious public health issue. As such, animal health professionals have been, and are, engaged in promoting real solutions going forward. That involves a cooperative, unified effort among leaders from both veterinary and human medicine.
As I noted in a previous column, politicians and activists are skilled at using talking points to promote their agenda (Feedstuffs, April 29). That's really a disservice to the public interest. The one-sided approach is a mirage when it comes to solving AMR.
The issue is far more complex than simply eliminating animal agriculture's use of antibiotics. What's required is an objective, science-based, One Health approach. The public deserves nothing less.
*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.