Consumer watch reports on antibiotics in meat

Earlier this month, CTV’s Consumer Watch played a brief clip on antibiotic resistance in children and the growing demand for niche-product meats. I found the segment shallow and biased. Biased to the extent it seemed designed to mislead and manipulate viewers rather than inform them. That, in my mind, is the job of marketing agencies – not the news.

This news clip bothered me enough that I wrote a letter to CTV. I was very disappointed to not receive a response from either CTV Edmonton or CTV Regina. Given this silence, I am reluctantly sharing my views here.

If you are a consumer, of meat or the media, and saw this segment I would love to hear your thoughts on both this issue and your perspective on current media coverage of agriculture.

January 26, 2016

Attention CTV Regina Newsroom and Mr. Dan Kobe,

This letter concerns your coverage of antimicrobial resistance in meat products which aired on CTV Regina the week of Jan 4th and is available on the CTV Edmonton website. I am a beef producer, veterinarian, and epidemiologist. I personally use antibiotics in my stock when necessary and also work with Canada’s pork, beef and poultry industries to monitor, understand and mitigate antibiotic resistance. I am concerned about antimicrobial resistance in animals.

I wholeheartedly agree with your report that antibiotic resistance is a growing threat. The emergence of resistance in human pathogens limits doctors’ abilities to treat infectious diseases, prevent post-surgical infections, and protect immunosuppressed patients. If anything, your report underestimated this health threat posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that >18,000 Canadians acquire a resistant nosocomial infection annually.

Just like in people, the rise of resistant bacteria is a concern for agriculture. Resistance hinders our ability to treat disease in farm animals. Resistant infections mean that antibiotic treatments are ineffective and my patients end up being sick for longer, require extra therapies, and sometimes die. These concerns mirror those of physicians.

I believe that everyone who uses antibiotics has a responsibility to be a good steward of these invaluable medicines. We are all in this together. This belief is why I am writing about your coverage of antibiotic use in farm animals and specifically your interview with Dr. Urvashi Rangan.

I am disturbed that such an important issue was covered superficially by a non-medical expert, referred only to American information, and inferred that Canadian consumers should choose specialty meat products as a route to address this public health threat.

I believe that everyone who uses antibiotics has a responsibility to be a good steward of these invaluable medicines.

Good journalism includes transparency about your information source. Dr. Rangan is poorly introduced. Mentioning a ‘US pediatrics group’ immediately prior to interviewing a doctor without providing her credentials is misleading. In fact, Dr. Rangan is an environmental scientist employed with Consumer Reports. Dr. Rangan’s bio, which is available through the FDA, indicates she has experience advocating and lobbying for sustainable production practices and increased transparency in the market place; both laudable goals to be sure. What Dr. Rangan appears to be lacking is expertise in treating children with antibiotic resistant infections and experience managing livestock and poultry health.  Canada has many informed and educated pediatricians and veterinarians specializing in infectious diseases. It is curious that Canadian experts were not sought for an interview.

Dr. Rangan states, “The overuse of antibiotics in farm animals, along with the conditions animals are raised in creates an environment for resistance to develop and spread.” Please permit me break out my concerns with this short statement.

  • The overuse of antibiotics in farm animals….

Stating antibiotics are overused, without context on the types, amount, how, why or when they are used is a disservice to your audience. The Canadian government monitors antibiotic use in Canadian livestock and publically reports these outcomes. Further, a Canadian food-animal veterinarian would be the appropriate expert to interview on the nuances of how antibiotics are used in farm animals.

  • …. along with the conditions animals are raised in…

Canadian livestock and poultry are well cared for in hygienic, humane and modern conditions. Our industries have Quality Assurance Programs and Codes of Practice that dictate rearing conditions. The Canadian government and our international clients recognize these standards. Again, Canadian veterinarians and producers are willing to share their personal experience about how they raise their animals. Many would provide the opportunity for you to verify this personally.

  • …. creates an environment for resistance to develop and spread.

Canadian scientists have been studying this exact question for decades. The answer is convoluted and complex. Recent evidence from our own Agriculture and Agri-Foods scientists suggests the bacterial ecologies responsible for human resistance are unique from those responsible for resistance in animals. While the book is certainly not closed on this question, a blunt 9-word statement is irresponsible and misleading to the very consumers that Consumer Reports purports to serve.

Dr. Rangan’s first short statement was followed by data from US Consumer Reports on the levels of antibiotic resistant superbugs in meat. Are you aware that the Canadian government has data on the levels of resistant bacteria in Canadian meat and farm animals? And did you know that proper food handling and cooking eliminates the hazard of resistant foodborne bacteria?

Dr. Rangan’s then states, “The best meat and poultry practices ban the use of all antibiotics, and other drugs in healthy animals, for growth promotion and disease prevention.” Once again, please permit me to break this out.

  • The best meat and poultry practices ban the use of all antibiotics… for growth promotion

Canada’s veterinary pharmaceutical industry is voluntarily removing label claims for growth promotion use of antibiotics in 2016.  New labels will reflect the true reasons for antibiotics use, which are disease prevention, control and treatment. Producers use other approaches including genetic selection, nutrition, vaccines, animal flow and barn hygiene to improve growth rates. Antibiotics are too valuable to use for growth promotion.

  • The best meat and poultry practices ban the use of all antibiotics… (for) disease prevention.

Animal health, care and welfare is the responsibility of every farmer. Allowing animals to become sick, suffer, and possibly die when appropriate science-based interventions are available is inhumane. I challenge you to find a producer that believes animals should be allowed to become sick when a government approved prevention is available. Veterinary oversight is increasing, so Canadians can be sure that antibiotics used for disease prevention are applied judiciously, appropriately, and responsibly.

  • ban the use of … other drugs in healthy animals

This is curious statement. Does Dr. Rangan mean vaccines? Parasiticide? Hormones? All of these pharmaceutical technologies are regulated for safety and efficacy by the Canadian government. Each serves a place to improve health and productivity of our stock. This in turn allows us to minimize our reliance on antibiotics in food-animal production while continuing to feed the world.

I appreciate that antibiotic use and resistance is a complex subject. Expecting coverage of every nuance of this issue, which rivals climate change in importance and complexity, in 1 minute and 57 seconds is unreasonable. Expecting balanced, Canadian coverage is not. In my opinion, your work fosters fear and confusion in consumers and undermines Canadian agriculture.

I am proud to work in an industry that provides Canadians with safe meat, poultry, eggs and dairy. Safe food is ensured by producers’ ethics, Canadian regulations, and veterinary oversight. Canadian agriculture is a partner with public health on in solving the One-Health crisis posed by antimicrobial resistance. Why? Because there are many, many, people in our industry who believe … just as I do … that everyone who uses antibiotics has a responsibility to be a good steward of these invaluable medicines. We are all in this together.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts on this. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to contact me.

As previously stated, I have not heard from CTV. I hope to hear from you. Please share your thoughts on both this issue but more importantly on accountable journalism and media coverage of agriculture.

 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Wendy Wilkins, DVM, PhD. says:

    Great letter, Leigh. Though CTV hasn’t responded, I hope it at least makes them think twice the next time they go to do a story on antimicrobial…or any drug…use in agriculture. It is great to have you as an outspoken champion for truth relative to farm animal and food safety issues.

    Like

  2. Thank you for sharing your expertise and explaining the use of antibiotics and other pharmaceutical technology in ag. I have to admit I was wondering about hormones and antibiotics in meat until I did more reading and educated myself (and married into a cattle farm :)). This is great info that I’ll definitely be sharing.

    Like

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