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Andrew Gunther

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USDA Admits Link Between Antibiotic Use by Big Ag and Human Health

Posted: 07/20/10 08:30 AM ET

At a hearing of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday, July 14, 2010, a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) finally caught up with the rest of the world -- and his peers at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- and admitted that the use of antibiotics in farm animal feed is contributing to the growing problem of deadly antibiotic resistance in America.

Dr. John Clifford, Deputy Administrator for Veterinary Services for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) read from his previously submitted testimony that the USDA believes it is likely that U.S. use of antibiotics in animal agriculture does lead to some cases of resistance in humans and the animals.

Why is this news? Because the USDA has been continually playing the Three Wise Monkeys game -- it sees no evil, hears no evil and speaks no evil -- when it comes to deadly consequences to humans of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals. In fact, Dr. Clifford looked as if he'd been given a choice between testifying or having his eye poked out with a stick and he lost the toss.

Others, though, readily stepped up to the plate. Despite the feeble nature of the recent FDA Guidance to Industry on farm animal antibiotics (read more about this in our blog), Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Principle Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, was clear in his testimony that the overall weight of evidence supports the conclusion that using antibiotics for production purposes in livestock farming (as growth promoters and to prevent rather than treat illness) is not in the interest of protecting and promoting public health.

Dr. Sharfstein also turned away a challenge from Representative John Shimkus (R-IL 19) about the soundness of the science upon which his findings rest. Mr. Shimkus, obviously unhappy with Dr. Sharfstein's testimony, badgered him to come up with up a U.S. peer-reviewed study (which Dr. Sharfstein did -- a 2003 Institute of Medicine study) and then questioned the veracity of the findings. Dr. Sharfstein assured Mr. Shimkus that the Institute has a peer-review process in place and reminded him that "the Institute is considered our nation's leading scientific expert ... "

Dr. Ali Khan, Assistant Surgeon General and the Deputy Director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID), Center for Disease Control and Prevention, testified that there is unequivocal and compelling evidence that the use of antibiotics in farm animals leads to drug resistance that has an adverse impact on public health. He also faced questions from a visibly agitated Mr. Shimkus, who kept dismissing studies by the World Health Organization and others to request "real science," which, from his posturing, is evidently only that which supports Big Ag.

Mr. Shimkus played his role as Big Ag's Mouthpiece admirably. He questioned every statistic, slide, study, expert, institution, report or person cited that didn't agree with an antibiotic free-for-all in the farmyard. "So far there's nothing that links use in animals to a buildup of resistance in humans," he stated, recklessly ignoring all published science since 1968 and the testimony of the doctors his government has charged with protecting health, while making sure he gave Big Ag a clear, concise statement around which it can issue an indignant press release.

So let's recap -- the USDA, however grudgingly, is finally admitting the link between the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics in farm animal feed and human drug resistance; the FDA is impressed enough with the "weight of the evidence" to begin calling for changes in how antibiotics are used in farm animal production; and the CDC feels the evidence is "unequivocal and compelling," yet there are still those calling for "real science?"

Well how about the March 22, 2010, report from the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network that a superbug call C. difficile is multi-drug resistant and on the rise? Is that real science or should we conduct more studies and perhaps hold a few more hearings?

We don't need more hearings, we need action. H.R. 1549, Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, continues to languish in committee while a few elected officials spend the taxpayer's time and money to pretend the science they are calling for doesn't already exist in mountains.

In the coming days, I expect that Big Ag will marshal their forces and come out with its own brand of science and experts to refute all testimony that threatens its profit margin. Of course, what I'm really waiting for is the day the Subcommittee calls on one of the dozens and dozens of AWA farmers to relate how changing from confined to pasture-based farming has eliminated the need for subtherapuetic and most therapeutic antibiotics because their animals and their farms are safe and healthy to begin with.