Commentary: The Pew’s Mommy Issues

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Editor’s note: This article has been modified from the original that appeared May 5.

This week the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming launched “Moms for Antibiotic Awareness,” what it calls a grassroots movement of moms working to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for their children and families.

After reading down through their press release, I have some issues of my own with much of their information. The campaign released the results of an online poll of 804 American mothers who are registered voters and have children aged 16 or younger. Eighty percent of the respondents were concerned about giving antibiotics to animals that are being produced for meat and poultry, with 42%  saying they are “very concerned” about this practice.

Going deeper into their website you can look at the questions asked in the poll about antibiotic use from “typical” American mothers who have neither a scientific nor agriculture background. And, none of the uses were explained in any of the statements/questions.

I find it interesting in the slide show that is presented for the public to view that the “supporters” statements of wanting more regulations are in a calming, agreeable blue-shaded box, and the “opponents” (that would be the livestock industry, AVMA and Farm Bureau) are in an antagonistic red. A little subtle influencing to consumers visiting the site and viewing the slide show?

And typical of the Pew, the onus is all on the livestock industry to curb antibiotic use. One of the questions participants were asked to agree or disagree with was: “Require food animal producers to submit an annual report to the FDA showing the amount and purpose of antibiotics used on their farms.” What they didn’t mention was that current law already requires the industry to report antimicrobial sales data to the FDA.

If the question was re-phrased to: “Require consumers and physicians to submit an annual report to the FDA showing the amount and purpose of antibiotics used in children and adults” do you think those mothers and MDs who prescribe ineffective antibiotics for ear infections, colds and six months for acne treatment would be very willing to own up to their own use and overuse?

The press release says “Each year, tens of thousands Americans die and hundreds of thousands more fall seriously ill from infections resistant to antibiotics.”  It also quotes Everly Macario, founder of the MRSA Research Center at the University of Chicago, which seems to imply a link between human MRSAs and food-animal use of antibiotics. However, experts including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the European Food Safety Authority say in the U.S. there are no demonstrable links between human MRSA illness and food-animal use of antibiotics. And, when found in pigs, MRSA is found in both conventional and organic herds that don’t use antibiotics.

I asked pathogen and antibiotic expert Scott Hurd, DVM, PhD, former Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety, Director WHO Collaborating Center for Risk Assessment and Hazard Identification in Foods of Animal Origin, Iowa State University about his thoughts on this campaign.

“As a father of eight children I understand, as do these moms, that it is not possible to raise children without antibiotics,” Hurd says. “Raising livestock is no different. Producers and veterinarians need these products to treat and prevent illness, just like Mom.”

Hurd adds that very little product is used for growth promotion and much of that is preventing illness. “Healthy food animals are vital to provide safe wholesome protein to kids and moms alike.”

I’m not saying we can’t do a better job in the livestock industry with careful and judicious use of antibiotics – we can and we need to. That is a must. But this type of campaign and survey by the Pew, in my opinion, serves only as another food scare for consumers who don’t understand science, livestock production and the differences between human and animal diseases and antibiotics.

I believe the Pew is reaching when it parades these results from a survey that I believe has questions weighted toward a negative response when I read them. This survey was a carefully picked subset of the population who, not being familiar with agricultural practices or government regulations, were asked to comment on them and those comments are being used as the basis of this nationwide campaign. The Pew says some of those respondents have a household income dependent on farming or ranching (but doesn’t say if it’s livestock or crops). But for me, there was not enough detail in the questions or the answers about specific uses and specific regulations and I’m not sure how people without some knowledge of them can make an informed, educated decision.

Hey, I still go to my mom for a lot of advice. She raised four kids who are all college graduates, some with multiple degrees, and she has a Master’s degree herself. But I have to say on this matter, I’d probably defer to my dad who has a DVM, MS and PhD – and a lifetime of agricultural and animal health experience and who understands biology, pharmacology and how pathogens behave. And, like I have for this article, I also defer to my dad’s industry colleagues who have the same – and even more – credentials, degrees and experience in science who inspire me to at least question data that is presented to the American public.

I’m not dissing any of those mom’s out there (especially right before Mother’s Day). I just think the implications in this campaign that link food animal use of antibiotics to generalized human antibiotic resistance are misleading. 

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Wendell Davis    
Shawnee, KS  |  May, 05, 2011 at 09:55 AM

Excellent comment on how the Moms and Doctors would react if they had to give an annual report of their antibiotic use.

michael reed    
kansas  |  May, 05, 2011 at 10:11 AM

Great Piece! Too bad the vast majority of those 51.5 million moms will never read this, and continue to be force-fed misinformation from these incredibly biased, and very well funded, sources, by the equally biased and ignorant mass media. Information like this needs to be distributed to all the mommy-bloggers across the world. And to others in the alternative media who share our belief in the importance of unbiased, science-based discussions of important issues. Modern Ag, and especially livestock Ag, have become the boogy-business of choice (2nd only to Big Oil) for every leftist nanny, animal rightist & climate-panic-monger in the Western World. Being a tiny minority of the voting population, our business is alternatively a protectorate, whipping-boy or straw-man for all sorts of politicians and political agenda. Time to take back the message and narrative, and expand our audience!

Joseph Butterweck, DVM    
Fresno, CA  |  May, 05, 2011 at 09:26 PM

Poultry feed conversions have never been better. The consumption of poultry meat is increasing and the price is a bargain. Over the last generation the industry has worked hard to produce a product with very limited antibiotics. Why can’t the swine industry do the same? Joseph Butterweck, DVM, DACVPM Fresno, CA

Idaho  |  May, 08, 2011 at 01:14 PM

I guess my mom was just weird. Antibiotics were rare in our home and used only when one of us was really sick. She did not use them to make me grow better, nor did I sprinkle them on my cereal before school to offset classroom overcrowding. Agriculture is part of the antibiotic resistance conversation whether we like it or not. Instead of this typical knee-jerk reaction and bizarre 'you can't raise kids without antibiotics' claims, we need to figure out how to make it work. Griping that antibiotic resistance is a human health system issue, then claiming that we can't raise kids without antibiotics brings this defense to a new level of absurdity.

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