Consumer groups are stepping up pressure on animal producers and their practice of giving antibiotics to healthy animals to prevent disease. In two new reports, the groups say they're worried that the preventive use of antibiotics is contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which get harder to treat in humans and animals over time.
This week, Consumer Reports released a report looking at bacteria on turkey meat that are resistant to medicines used for humans. Scientists there tested 257 samples of raw ground turkey meat that they purchased at grocery stores around the country. They conclude that turkey meat that came from turkeys raised organically without antibiotics was significantly less likely to harbor resistant bacteria compared with meat from conventional turkeys that were given antibiotics.
"We think these findings underscore a very important [government] recommendation that we don't need to feed healthy animals antibiotics every day to promote their growth and prevent disease," says Urvashi Rangan, director of the food safety and sustainability group at Consumer Reports.
The findings came on the heels of a report from another consumer advocacy organization, the Environmental Working Group, which analyzed data collected by the federal government's National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System. It also documented high levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in store-bought meats.
The Food and Drug Administration took issue with this EWG analysis, saying it came to "misleading conclusions." But meanwhile, the agency has weighed in on the complex problem of antibiotic resistance by calling for the judicious use of antibiotics in food-producing animals.
"One way FDA is working to address this issue [of resistance] is to phase out the use of antibiotics in food animals for growth promotion and feed efficiency," says Jalil Isa, a spokesman for the agency. "FDA believes these drugs should be used only in situations where they are necessary for ensuring animal health, and done so under the oversight of a veterinarian."
Around 70 percent of those drugs aren't used to treat sick animals, according estimates by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Instead, farmers administer them at low doses to help animals grow faster and prevent infections.
Diana Goodpasture of Akron, Ohio, knows what it's like to be sickened by a strain of salmonella bacteria that's resistant to antibiotic treatment. In June 2011, after she ate a turkey burger that she had grilled, she became so sick that she was hospitalized for five days.
"It was terrible; it was the worst thing I ever experienced in my life," Goodpasture tells The Salt. She was infected with salmonella Heidelberg that was resistant to three types of antibiotics: ampicillin, streptomycin and tetracycline. The tainted meat was part of a massive ground turkey recall.
Consumer Reports briefed several government agencies on its findings, which were released April 30, on bacteria in ground turkey meat. In an email, the FDA's Isa says the report leaves out information that would have been helpful, such as "details about which types of bacteria were found to be resistant to which antibiotics."
UPDATE, Wednesday, May 1, 12:30 p.m.
The FDA acknowledges that it overlooked a table in the report that does include the details on which bacteria were resistant to individual antibiotics.
And the original post continues...
The National Turkey Federation, meanwhile, says it believes turkey producers are using antibiotics judiciously — and that their practices help keep turkey flocks healthy. They point out that in general, the antibiotics used most in raising turkeys are not the same antibiotics that are relied upon to treat people.
NTF President Joel Brandenberger says animal agriculture is only one piece of the puzzle in the problem of antibiotic resistance, but he recognizes FDA's efforts to work with producers to restrict their use of the drugs.
"The National Turkey Federation has been cautiously supportive of FDA's strategy," says Brandenberger.
According to poultry scientist Michael Hulet at Penn State University, the poultry industry has already stopped using a lot of the drugs that are still used to treat infections in humans, like ciprofloxacin. And, he says, when the industry does use the same drugs that doctors prescribe to sick people — drugs like tetracycline — it's usually only to treat animals that are truly sick, not to prevent disease.
"The industry has really cut back on the number of drugs used [for routine prevention of disease in healthy animals] because of some of the concern about resistance," Hulet says.
But Gail Hansen with the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming says it's impossible to confirm whether the poultry industry's claims are true, because there are no publicly available data on how the drugs are actually used. "So far, all we really have is 'trust' and no way to verify," says Hansen.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have proposed new legislation that would restrict the use of antibiotics in food animals and eight classes of antibiotics for human use only.
"We need to take action to confront this growing public health crisis before routine infections like strep throat become fatal," Democratic New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, author of the legislation, said in a statement.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Nowadays, farmers who raise livestock and poultry commonly use antibiotics. And as with humans, the practice of routinely giving animals these medicines has been under close scrutiny. That's because using antibiotics too often creates strains of bacteria that are resistant to treatment. And a new study on how much resistant bacteria is found in ground turkey, has led to more calls for action.
NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you've ever had food poisoning, you know how bad it can be. For Diana Goodpasture, of Akron, Ohio, she did not know what hit her when one night in June of 2011, after eating a grilled turkey burger, she got so sick she couldn't function
DIANA GOODPASTURE: It was terrible. It was the worst thing I ever experienced in my life.
AUBREY: At first she thought she had the flu. She didn't know she'd end up in the hospital for five days.
GOODPASTURE: And, you know, I kept thinking I'll get better, I'll get better. But unfortunately it wasn't the flu. It was salmonella poisoning which I had acquired from the ground turkey.
AUBREY: The tainted meat Diana had eaten was part of a batch that prompted a massive ground turkey recall in 2011. The death of one person was tied to the outbreak and more than 75 people got sick. Now, what made victims such as Diana Goodpasture's medical situation potentially more complicated, was that it turned out the specific strain of bacteria found in that meat, called Salmonella Heidelberg, was resistant to three kinds of antibiotics used in people.
This means these medicines would not have worked to fight off the infection. In Goodpasture's case, she was given Cipro - an antibiotic that did work.
GOODPASTURE: I was on IVs in hospital and then I was on tablets at home.
AUBREY: And thankfully she did recover. But her story raises important questions. Why have bacteria become resistant to medicines that used to be effective in wiping them out? Public health experts have pointed to the daily use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals as one contributor.
Gail Hansen is a veterinarian who works for the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming.
GAIL HANSEN: Livestock producers, poultry producers give low levels of antibiotics to healthy animals oftentimes just to get them to grow faster; and to them from getting disease or from diseases spreading.
AUBREY: The practice has become controversial, and that's why a new analysis by Consumer Reports has created a buzz. What Consumer Reports did was to purchase samples of raw, ground turkey at grocery stores around the country. They found that the meat that came from turkeys raised conventionally - with antibiotics - was significantly more likely to harbor antibiotic resistant bacteria, compared to turkey that came from animals raised organically without antibiotics. And some bacteria were resistant to multiple antibiotics.
Here's Urvashi Rangan of Consumer Reports.
URVASHI RANGAN: We think these findings underscore a very important recommendation that we don't need to feed healthy animals antibiotics, every day, to promote their growth and prevent disease.
AUBREY: The Food and Drug Administration has already called for more judicious use of antibiotics in farm animals. But as more studies document antibiotic resistance, the agency says one goal of their strategy is to phase out the use of the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. And turkey producers are paying attention.
Here's the industry's Joel Brandenberger. He's president of the National Turkey Federation
JOEL BRANDENBERGER: The National Turkey Federation has been cautiously supportive of FDA's strategy.
AUBREY: But Brandenberger says turkey producers do want to preserve the use of antibiotics to prevent disease.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
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