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Antibiotic Resistance: How Industrial Agriculture Lies with Statistics

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The U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance wants to talk to you. The website of the Alliance, a coalition of corporations and trade associations that make up a who's who of industrial agriculture, says the organization wants "to engage in dialogue with consumers who have questions about how today's food is grown and raised." It appears, however, that the organization is more concerned with countering increasing awareness of the public health and environmental harms associated with industrialized agriculture.

Take antibiotic resistance. Just last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a landmark report estimating that antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause at least 2 million infections and kill at least 23,000 people in the U.S. every year. The "single most important" driver of this epidemic, according to the report, is the inappropriate use of antibiotics, including in agriculture. As the CDC put it, "much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe."

Indeed, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data have shown that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are sold for use in food animals, not humans. The same data suggest that the vast majority of antibiotics used in food animals are administered to compensate for crowded and unsanitary conditions and to speed animal growth. This use promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can spread to humans on food and through the environment. In addition to the CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and many others have called for restrictions on antibiotic use in animal agriculture.

Faced with this damning evidence, the drug and food animal industries have tried repeatedly to rebut the 80-percent figure. Initially, they argued that data on antibiotic sales could not be used to determine antibiotic use. There is some uncertainty in these data, but not enough to escape the fact that the vast majority of antibiotics in this country are used in food animals, not to treat sick people.

Now the industry has taken a new tack. The Alliance, which despite its bucolic name includes some of the largest drug and pesticide companies in the world, including Monsanto and Zoetis, the animal drug company controlled by Pfizer, has posted an infographic that uses the same antibiotic sales data to compare antibiotic use in food animals to antibiotic use in humans (apparently, the industry no longer objects to using sales data to describe use). Based on this comparison, the infographic implies that antibiotic use in food animal production plays no role in antibiotic resistance of human pathogens. In doing so, it also ignores basic scientific and medical knowledge of bacteriology and infectious disease.

According to the Alliance, if an antibiotic is not used extensively in human medicine, then its widespread use in food animal production should not be a concern. For example, tetracyclines represent 41 percent of antibiotic sales for use in animals but only 4 percent of sales for use in humans. The infographic also notes that 30 percent of antibiotics sold for animal use are ionophores, a type of antibiotic used widely in food animal production that is not used in humans.   
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