Antibiotics survey leaves wrong impression on meat

A CNN report in mid-October started this way: “Six consumer interest groups are now sounding the alarm about the use of antibiotics in meat served at the 25 largest burger chains in the United States.”

The issue of antibiotic resistant infections, mainly due to overuse of antibiotics in humans, is important and well-known. The alarm was sounded years ago. But the method of addressing it, in this case a simple survey, is imprudent.

It’s estimated that 700,000 people died worldwide in 2016 as a result of infections that are resistant to antibiotics. It’s thought that by 2050, up to 10 million people could die annually.

Canada and the United States have joined a global initiative called One Health, which includes industry groups, government organizations, veterinarians, scientists, physicians and academics to take a multi-disciplinary approach to antibiotic resistance.

Such an approach, for example, has yielded policy change in Canada that means farmers must get prescriptions from veterinarians for antibiotics, which helps to assign professional accountability.

The consumer groups involved in the burger chain survey are the National Resource Defence Council, Consumer Reports, the U.S. Public Research Interest Group, Friends of the Earth, the Food Animal Concerns Trust, and the Center for Food Safety. They rated restaurants on their policies and practices through a survey aimed at eliminating the “routine” use of antibiotics in animals.

Two restaurants were given an A, one rated a D minus, and 22 failed. (Only seven of 25 restaurants asked to fill out the survey responded.) It’s relevant in Canada because pressure on restaurant chains in the U.S. have a natural spill-over effect.

This report does not acknowledge meaningful scientific efforts focused on antibiotics in agriculture. It does not acknowledge the fact that governments and industry groups are making progress toward reducing or eliminating the use of medically important antibiotics in animals (those vital to treating human infections that have not responded to other drugs) and it does not take into account animal health or the economic realities of farming.

Science and research are showing the way. For instance, in feedlots, antibiotics are used on newly weaned cattle that are stressed from leaving their mothers and mingling with new animals, and thus are susceptible to disease. But research suggests that increased use of fence line or two-stage weaning may reduce stress on calves and hopefully ease the need for prophylactic (or so-called routine) antibiotics.

Yet such efforts escape this study. It’s all or nothing through consumer pressure.

As well, such a survey subtly implies that meat produced with antibiotics is unhealthy. It is not. There are rules for withdrawal periods. There are no antibiotics in meat or dairy products when they reach consumers.

Agriculture is responsible for about 80 percent of antibiotic use in Canada, which isn’t surprising considering there are 19 animals for every human and animal weight is factored in. So the industry has an important role to play in battling antibiotic resistance. It would be prudent to ensure the industry is fulfilling that obligation.

Rather than submitting restaurants to consumer pressure, where the law of unintended consequences is bound to prevail when it comes to animal health, efforts would be better aimed at studying policies of industry groups to see whether they embrace the One Health initiative and whether that initiative’s concepts are being promoted among their members.

A restaurant survey to increase consumer pressure leaves the wrong impression about meat and, if the pressure is successful, can be dangerous to animal health.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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