by Marion Nestle
Apr 24 2013

FDA vs EWG: Report on antibiotic-resistant superbugs in meat oversimplified, misleading?

Earlier this month, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) issued a report on antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat: Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets.

Its message:

Consumers have a right to know that federal scientists are finding antibiotic-resistant bacteria on retail meat in high percentages.

The report must have struck a nerve.  The FDA has now posted a rebuttal on its website, along with the agency’s interpretation of data in the 2011 Retail Meat Annual Report of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS).

The EWG, says FDA, “oversimplifies the NARMS data and provides misleading conclusions.”

The FDA particularly objects to EWG’s use of the term “superbugs.”

We believe that it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as “superbugs” if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics.

The FDA says the NARMS data show:

  • No fluoroquinolone resistance in Salmonella from any source (the drug of choice for treating adults with Salmonella).
  • Resistance to trimethoprim-sulfonamide is also low (0% to 3.7%).
  • Fluoroquinolone resistance in Campylobacter has remained essentially unchanged since it was banned for use in poultry in 2005.
  • Macrolide antibiotic resistance in retail chicken isolates remains low (this is the drug of choice for treating Campylobacter)
  • Multidrug resistance is rare in Campylobacter except that gentamicin resistance increased from 0.7% in 2007 to 18.1% in 2011.
  • Resistance to third-generation cephalosporins, which are used to treat salmonellosis, increased in Salmonella from chicken (10 to 33.5%) and turkey (8.1 to 22.4%) from 2002 to 2011.  FDA has already taken action by prohibiting certain extra-label uses of cephalosporins in cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys.

The EWG’s response to the FDA’s rebuttal:

This is the best the agency can do?

It has been failing to protect the public health on this issue for 40 years, only recently issuing a voluntary guidance to scale back on the worst antibiotic abuses.

What are we to make of this dispute?

Beyond questions about how best to frame antibiotic resistance, some facts are clear.

  • Most antibiotics in the United States are used as growth promoters for raising meat animals, not as treatment for infections in animals or people.
  • Frequent use of antibiotics selects for and promotes the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • Infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria are difficult to treat, and sometimes very difficult to treat.

It would be better for public health to end the use of antibiotics as growth promoters.

The FDA’s current stance on use of animal antibiotics appears to be more about protecting the meat industry than about protecting public health.

While waiting for the politics to get better (and this might be a long wait), the EWG has some tips for avoiding antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat.  I can’t think of a single good reason not to follow these recommendations, except that they place the burden of avoiding antibiotic-resistant bacteria on you rather than on the meat industry.

That’s why EWG’s advice to Be Vocal makes especially good sense:

Be vocal: 

  • When you’re eating out: ask if the meat was raised without unnecessary antibiotics. 
  • „At the doctor’s office: don’t press for unnecessary antibiotics. 
  • With your friends: share this tip sheet or a wallet guide with them. 
  • „Make your voice heard: Go to ewg.org/antibioticsaction to find out how you can help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics [Try www.ewg.org--the link given here doesn't seem to work].

Comments

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  • SAO
  • April 24, 2013
  • 12:10 pm

I dislike “don’t press your doctor for antibiotics.” I’ve often gone to the doctor with a cold, cough, flu that seems to me to be too severe or last too long. I’m not there to get an antibiotic or other treatment, I’m there for the doctor to judge whether I (or my kids) need treatment or more patience. Often, the doctor assumes I’m there for a pill. That’s not me, that’s him.

  • EM Prentiss
  • April 24, 2013
  • 11:29 pm

“When you’re eating out: ask if the meat was raised without unnecessary antibiotics”

Oh please, like the wait staff knows!

Its hard enough to find out if there in anything is the dish that I know will cause anaphylaxis!

  • TR
  • April 25, 2013
  • 10:53 am

It wouldnt surprise me at all if antibiotic resistant bugs are found on meat. They are spreading outside of the hospitals. However, asking vendors if their meat was raised without antibiotics is up there with asking if its a gmo. The people have the right to know. The vendors have the obligation, whether legally mandated or not, to know the answers. But the industry is highly resistant to being so transparent. I guess the superbugs are resistant after all. I dont blame people for going vegetarian/organic. It appears its the only hope they have to find any semblence of corporate accountability.
Of course the FDA’s rebuttal is to protect the industry, the industry has high paid lawyers. Average Joe Citizen has none.

[...] Infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria are difficult to treat, and sometimes very difficult to treat.” Source [...]

[...] derided by food policy bloggers and analysts; in one stinging reaction, author and NYU professor Marion Nestle said: “The FDA’s current stance on use of animal antibiotics appears to be more about protecting the [...]

[...] derided by food policy bloggers and analysts; in one stinging reaction, author and NYU professor Marion Nestle said: “The FDA’s current stance on use of animal antibiotics appears to be more about protecting the [...]

[...] derided by food policy bloggers and analysts; in one stinging reaction, author and NYU professor Marion Nestle said: “The FDA’s current stance on use of animal antibiotics appears to be more about protecting the [...]

[...] by food policy writers and experts in a single stinging reaction, author and NYU professor Marion Nestle stated: “The FDA’s current stance on utilization of animal anti-biotics seems to become much more [...]

[...] by meals coverage bloggers and analysts in just one stinging response, creator and NYU professor Marion Nestle explained: “The FDA’s latest stance on use of animal antibiotics seems to be extra about guarding the [...]

[…] Infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria are difficult to treat, and sometimes very difficult to treat.” Source […]

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