Panel calls for clarity in antibiotic use data

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, April 6, 2016 - As much as the Obama administration and private industry have done to address antibiotic resistance, some stakeholders still want to see more clarity on some of the metrics being used in the conversation.

Speaking on a panel at the Consumer Federation of America's National Food Policy Conference in Washington, James MacDonald with USDA's Economic Research Service pointed to some ambiguity in one of the most cited statistics surrounding the issue: antibiotic sales.

MacDonald and fellow panelist Christine Daugherty, vice president of sustainable food production for Tyson Foods, made the claim that antibiotic use in animal agriculture is declining. Daugherty cited a statistic showing that since 2011, Tyson has reduced the use of medically important antibiotics in broiler production by over 80 percent and has removed all antibiotics from the company's hatcheries. 

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However, a December Food and Drug Administration report sales shows sales of antibiotic products increased 4 percent in 2014 over 2013 and is up 22 percent from 2009.  While MacDonald didn't dispute the data in the report, he pointed out some ambiguities that he said needed to be clarified.

“What the FDA reports is sales data from manufacturing plants,” he said. “We ship a lot of soybeans overseas, but no farmer exports soybeans, they are exported by intermediaries. I would have more faith in FDA data if we were able to track domestic sales to wholesalers that are able to export. I don't think we handle exports (of antibiotics) particularly well.”

MacDonald also noted that FDA data includes companion animals, which could be lumping a faction of antibiotic sales intended for pets in the same report that many perceive as antibiotic sales for animal agriculture. He said all these factors make it hard to actually track sales for agricultural purposes, and that he has “some skepticism about the actual growth shown in the FDA data."

Lance Price, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, concurred to a degree, saying he wants to see “no more of these conversations about the cloudiness of the data.” Instead, he called for producer reporting of antibiotic use, something that many protein sector producer groups are strongly against.

The panel also touched on the delicate situation of animal welfare as it relates to antibiotic resistance: If a producer sees an animal with a sickness treatable by an antibiotic, doesn't that producer have a moral obligation to treat it as such? While the panel didn't necessarily criticize the use of antibiotics for treatment in sick animals, Urvashi Rangan, the director for consumer safety and sustainability with the Consumers Union, said the broader ramifications of potential overuse should be considered.

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“A sick animal needs to be treated just like a sick human being needs to be treated, that's what the humane practice is,” she said. “But in order to manage the disease, you have to have a broader approach, so transparency across the board becomes incredibly important in making sure that we're dealing with this from a systemic basis.”

Administrative efforts like FDA's Veterinary Feed Directive and private industry initiatives like Tyson's have all contributed to the broader discussion about antibiotic resistance and - depending on how you interpret the statistics - potentially decreased use. Price said while it is encouraging to see regulatory and private efforts to combat the problem, something needs to happen legislatively.

“I see the global crisis of antibiotic resistance, and really, we have to step up to this challenge to protect antibiotics for future generations,” Price said. “None of us want to live in a world where antibiotics do not work.”

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