Wall Street Journal gets the story wrong on antibiotic use

By Doc Sanders

What did you say about antibiotics?

Bill Towson of The Wall Street Journal reported March 16 on a recent USDA hearing about the supposed overuse of antibiotics by hog farmers. He reported that the USDA’s Edward Knipling testified that the alleged overuse posed a human health threat.

Towson went on to report that the situation could be exposing Americans to antibiotic-resistant E. coli and Campylobacter. E. coli causes a severe gastrointestinal (GI) tract illness. Campy also causes food safety issues that can lead to GI disease.

The article stated that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned hog, cattle and chicken producers to stop the widespread practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock to promote growth. Knipling was quoted as saying that the government antibiotic monitoring system used in livestock has produced significant results. And the article said USDA is proposing research to show hog farmers how to wean their pigs off antibiotics.

Is all this news to you? If so, that’s not surprising, since it’s also news to the USDA officials involved in the hearing.

You see, reporter Bill Towson included information that is conjecture in his article, which never occurred at the USDA hearing. It is apparent that The Wall Street Journal editors took Bill Towson’s story at face value and didn’t give it much thought before publishing it.

Upon publication of Towson’s account, the USDA quickly issued a clarification that The Wall Street Journal report was erroneous. The truth is that Knipling, in response to a question, had testified that the USDA is conducting research on antibiotic use in livestock and antibiotic resistance. He testified that “in some cases there are problems and concerns. This is not as severe as it might otherwise be portrayed.” (For instance, “as it might otherwise be portrayed” in The Wall Street Journal.)

Despite Knipling’s testimony, The Wall Street Journal reported that “hog farmers are overusing antibiotics on their herds and they are creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria that pose a threat to human health.” The headline on the story said government data support that contention.

The USDA clarified the issue by stating this was never reported in the hearing! This is an unusual action for the USDA, which rarely speaks up to clarify an issue. A transcript of the testimony corroborates the USDA’S clarification.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) said claims that pork producers overuse antibiotics, leading to antibiotic resistance, have no basis in fact. The Council also said there is no science to support the claims. Data from the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) shows resistance has been nearly unchanged for the past 10 to 15 years. NARMS data for 2009 indicate that antibiotic resistance is “low.”

The pork industry also supports the NARMS data. Take a moment to learn more facts about antibiotic resistance in pork at www.factsaboutpork.org.

I’ll leave you with this:

This isn’t the first time I’ve shared with you in this column misinformation that the mainstream media is disseminating about agriculture.  And this isn’t the first time — and probably not the last — that I’ll give you a call to action in the defense of your chosen profession.

Now, be honest. those of you in animal agriculture: Did any of you speak up when this Wall Street Journal story hit the streets? Did you try to set the story straight?

Face it: You know the facts. So, when stories like this get big headlines, speak up in the grocery store, at church, at school functions, in a letter to the editor or in a reply to a blog post. If those of us in animal agriculture do not start standing up for our practice of sound bioethics and proven, safe scientific methods to feed the world, we will end up constricted in how we can operate by the skewed beliefs of vegetarian and environmental nut cases and well-meaning but misinformed consumers.

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