EDITORIAL: Clouding issues with false claims serves no good purpose

In June 2006, IFT released its fourth and latest Expert Report Antimicrobial Resistance: Implications For The Food System. Coverage of the report and topics addressed within it appeared shortly thereafter in dozens of news outlets nationwide, including the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald and many outlets in the Chicago market. Subsequently, the World-Herald and the Chicago Sun Times published nearly identical letters-to-the-editor opposing the report. The following editorial by IFT’s Office of Science, Communications, and Government Relations responds to that letter. For a comprehensive review of news media coverage of the Expert Report, see the Newsmakers column in the September issue of Food Technology.

Claims that human health is threatened by non-therapeutic antibiotic treatments of animals raised for food are in direct conflict with the analysis of reliable scientific documentation to-date. Such analysis, made recently and reported in the IFT Expert Report Antimicrobial Resistance: Implications For The Food System, contradicts the false claims, vague information and erroneous statements being made in an attempt to discount scientific consensus.

Such claims ignore the evidence that shows eliminating the use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic reasons has resulted in increased disease among animals and increased antibiotic use for disease treatment, thus increasing the risk of exposure to resistant bacteria and, in turn, increasing the threat to human health. They also fail to take into account that low doses of antibiotics help to reduce from food animal carcasses the occurrence of bacteria that cause human illness (e.g. Salmonella). That is a significant human health benefit to antibiotic use.

Two key points where food scientists and technologists influence the spread of antibiotic-resistant and pathogenic microorganisms in food is in (1) Preventing them from entering the food supply, and if present (2) Inactivating them or preventing their growth. Interventions that effectively reduce the prevalence of foodborne pathogens also reduce the prevalence of pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics. Applying these many interventions to control foodborne pathogens in general, rather than focusing on antibiotic-resistant microbes specifically, would have the greatest impact in reducing human foodborne illnesses.

The expert panel of microbiologists, veterinarians and other scientists commissioned by, and working independent from, IFT, urge their scientific peers, government regulatory agencies, and the food production and manufacturing sectors here and abroad to actively acquire much needed data in order to make the most informed decisions possible regarding the future of food production systems and their impact on food safety.

The complexity of antibiotic resistance precludes simple solutions and single approaches. Effective food safety systems integrate science and risk analysis at all levels. Acquired resistance is a complex scientific phenomenon that takes place within a larger ecosystem and social system. It is critical to recognize this bigger picture when considering potential policy changes. A thorough risk assessment can provide the framework for the needed big picture view of a problem, its sources, and the consequences—intended or unintended—of policy changes.

Solutions cannot be based on hopes and guessing no matter how loudly trumpeted. It serves no reasonable purpose to the nation’s consumers or to the world’s population to demand drastic change to regulations on the simple hope that improvements to human health will result. The tendency for resistance varies with bacterium, the antibiotic, and usage pattern. It varies among the same areas as applied to human medicine. Policies regarding antibiotic use in food animals should be developed on a case-by-case basis and science-based risk assessment.

Rather than issuing bogus information, unsubstantiated claims, and personal attacks, those with single viewpoints would better serve this complex issue, public health, food system needs, and society at-large by working in concert with scientific, regulatory, and advocacy communities for the benefit of everyone involved in the food system.

IFT is a professional association of food scientists, technologists and other individuals working in government, academia, and the food industry. Expert panel chairman and IFT member Michael Doyle is an internationally renowned and well-respected food microbiologist who has dedicated immense effort to advance the safety of the food supply. IFT-commissioned Expert Reports utilize expertise within and outside IFT membership to purposefully and comprehensively address critical issues and bring sound scientific analysis providing clarity to topics that often can be clouded by hyperbole and myth. Any claims contrary to these are false.