If this week’s CBS Evening News report on antibiotics used on farms has you concerned, don’t be.
On Feb. 9-10, CBS news anchor Katie Couric aired a report critical of antibiotics used on farms, leading viewers to believe recent outbreaks in the staph infection MRSA may have come from workers who handled poultry and swine that had been fed antibiotics.
Not so, says H. Scott Hurd, veterinarian and former Deputy Undersecretary for U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Service.
Following the two-part series, Hurd responded critically to the reporting and said one big factor gets in the way of claiming MRSA in humans comes from livestock: the kind humans get is not the same strain.
“The type of MRSA that has been associated with livestock is unique (known as strain 398),” he said.
Hurd said strain 398 has not been found in human disease surveillance for MRSA conducted by either the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the University of Iowa hospitals.
“It is very unlikely that the people interviewed for the CBS story had livestock-associated MRSA,” he said. “However, it’s much more likely these people had the very common community-acquired strain of MRSA from being in close contact with infected people — not animals.
Setting it straight
Hurd was among a panelist of experts who spoke to media Thursday in a conference call, addressing concerns with the CBS report and assuring the American people farms are using antibiotics safely and with regulation.
“The CBS report was quite interesting but was rather short on facts and science and was long on speculation,” said Richard Carnevale, veterinarian and vice president of regulatory, scientific and international affairs with Animal Health Institute.
Already regulated. Carnevale said the report failed to mention the drugs farmers use are approved by Food and Drug Administration. Additionally, Hurd said contrary to what was reported, FDA also inspects feed mills that produce medicated feed and works with USDA to conduct tests in processing facilities to ensure regulations for antibiotics are followed.
Carnevale reminds consumers “MRSA is not acquired through eating or handling meat. … While the story was interesting, I think it was short on certain key facts.”
Couric interviewed farmers in Denmark, a country that recently banned non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. Comparing the two nations, she suggested it might be a model for the United States to follow.
But many disagree, saying that while antibiotic use may have declined in feeds, it increased significantly in therapeutic use, and hog mortality is on the rise.
In a written response, Hurd writes Danish farmers are not even allowed to use antibiotics to prevent common illnesses they know are coming.
“They must wait until pigs suffer and die,” he wrote.
He points to statistics, showing a sharp decrease in the number of farms, from 25,000 in 1995 to less than 10,000 in 2005.
“What appeared to be a ban on antibiotic use in healthy pigs actually pointed out the benefits of its use in helping pigs grow healthy,” he wrote.
The estimated cost to raise hogs without antibiotics would be about $6 per hog. It may not sound like much, but with today’s swine market, it could be the difference between staying in business, or going under.
“That would be huge,” said Liz Wagstrom, veterinarian and spokesperson with National Pork Board.
Just another tool
She was among those interviewed by Couric, and said antibiotics are just one tool farmers use to keep their animals healthy and productive, combined with ventilation, hygiene and many others.
For Carnevale and others, it all comes down to one big problem — sensationalism.
“It’s a story that makes it sound like there’s a big problem …. but it really falls short of being the big problem that they seem to think is out there.”
But for the millions of consumers who watched the program, not knowing why antibiotics are used or how safely, the program could be a big problem, officials have said.