News Round-Up: Meat, Superbugs, Denmark And Big Food

I was off-line for a week with family issues, and while I was gone, news broke out. (It senses your absence, news does. This is the real reason why coups and major foodborne outbreaks happen in August.)

So while I dive into the bigger stories that seem to be happening — and get some fun summer stuff lined up — here’s a quick recap of things worth noticing:

On Sunday, the Washington Post editorialized on the need to rein in antibiotic overuse in agriculture:

…The evidence is overwhelming that bacteria are evolving in ways that make many antibiotic drugs less useful. Overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is not the only reason, but it is a significant part of the equation. A more concerted effort is needed by industry, regulators and science to reverse this trend, before we confront a new generation of superbugs.

A few days before, so did the journal Nature, on the need for better data that could help track the evolution of resistance:

…The first step to building the case for tighter control is to obtain more specific data. Researchers should be able to survey ten farms in ten US states, for example, and extrapolate those data nationally to build up an accurate picture of antibiotic use. The drugs are almost certainly overused, and are almost certainly having a damaging impact on public health, so publishing the results would help in raising awareness of the problem and generating the necessary support.

That editorial accompanied a commentary by Frank Aarestrup, longtime antibiotic-resistance researcher in Denmark, which relates the country’s experience reducing on-farm antibiotic use. His re-telling, using up-to-date statistics, explodes the myth that animal welfare and meat production in Denmark suffered after their ban. They did not.

Even before Danish farmers cut back on antibiotics, many predicted that the cessation would have a disastrous effect on productivity and the economy. However, in poultry production, it had no negative effects on either the total kilograms of chickens produced per square metre, or the amount of feed used. In pigs, reducing antibiotics had no negative effects on productivity, number of pigs produced per sow, average daily weight gain or the amount of feed needed to produce a kilogram of meat. In fact, pork production has increased steadily in Denmark as farmers have continued to modernize.

Meanwhile, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization announced that it would take a hard look at growth promoters during the meeting this week of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. The website and agenda for the meeting are utterly impenetrable — annoyingly typical for WHO and UN productions — but you can follow along on Twitter at #codex2012. And the European Open Science Forum in Dublin, which happens next week, has also announced that it will hold a session on antibiotic resistance in human medicine and agriculture; they’re going to look particularly at the role of innovation (in drug development and rapid tests, for instance) and their hashtag, debuting July 12, is #uselessantibiotics.

Finally, if you’re short of summer reading, take a look at the series of articles launched two weeks ago by PLoS Medicine, “Big Food.” The opening commentary, written by Marion Nestle of NYU and David Stuckler of the University of Cambridge, underlies points that many of you will take for granted: global food and beverage multi-nationals are responsible for increasing consumption worldwide of sugar-sweeted beverages and highly processed foods, and political systems are unwilling to challenge them. Then, however, they smartly turn the examination back onto the public health community they spring from, asking whether the profession has done all it can, and answering No:

Public health professionals have been slow to respond to such nutritional threats in developed countries and even slower still in developing countries. Thanks to insights from tobacco company documents, we have learned a great deal about how this industry sought to avoid or flout public health interventions that might threaten their profits. We now have considerable evidence that food and beverage companies use similar tactics to undermine public health responses such as taxation and regulation, an unsurprising observation given the flows of people, funds, and activities between Big Tobacco and Big Food. Yet the public health response to Big Food has been minimal.

… action requires tackling vested interests, especially the powerful Big Food companies with strong ties to and influence over national governments. This is difficult terrain for many public health scientists. It took five decades after the initial studies linking tobacco and cancer for effective public health policies to be put in place, with enormous cost to human health. Must we wait five decades to respond to the similar effects of Big Food?




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