A much-noted move by the nation’s largest poultry provider to drastically reduce its use of human antibiotics in chickens apparently has little to do with the prevailing science that links such usage to antibiotic resistance in people.
At least, Tyson Foods' CEO managed to suggest that in an interview with the Guardian last week.
Donnie Smith acknowledged that “there is a global health concern about antibiotic resistance” in humans as a result of the use of antibiotics in livestock. But he went on to say, “I don’t see there is a problem,” claiming that he was “not sure” after reviewing the science if there was any "direct connection" between usage in animals and the risk of spreading antibiotic-resistant bugs among humans.
As the Guardian pointed out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that connection and called for the more “judicious” use of antibiotics in both humans and animals.
The Guardian story ran under the headline "'I don't see a problem': Tyson Foods CEO on factory farming and antibiotic resistance."
Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson described that headline as "misleading" and said it "lacks the full context of our CEO's comments" in a statement sent to The Huffington Post on Tuesday.
"We know that antibiotic resistance is a very complex issue with no single cause and no single solution," the Tyson statement continued. "It’s a global concern and we want to be part of the solution. That’s why we’re committed to doing our part by reducing antibiotic use on the farm."
Smith's comments to the Guardian were not exactly in tune with other recent announcements from Tyson on the subject of antibiotics.
On its website, the company features a "position statement" reiterating its pledge, issued in 2015, to end the use of human antibiotics in its broiler chickens by September 2017. The statement notes that Tyson is also working to reduce the use of antibiotics in its beef, pork and turkey products. Earlier this year, Tyson introduced a new label for antibiotic-free pork.
Despite the science and Tyson's example, sales of antibiotics intended for farm animals have actually climbed in recent years. All told, the U.S. agriculture sector is said to be responsible for an estimated 80 percent of the nation’s overall antibiotic usage.
Meanwhile, scientists are warning that superbugs resistant to "last-line" antibiotics and with "epidemic potential" have been found in China.
Evidence linking antibiotic use in livestock to antibiotic resistance in humans dates back several decades.
In 1976, Dr. Stuart Levy, a physician and director of Tufts University’s Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance, published the results of a study to determine the impact that adding antibiotics to chickens’ feed would have not only on their health, but on the health of the farm's workers. Within a week, the workers began to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
For its part, the meat industry has defended antibiotic use on farms as an essential tool to keep livestock healthy. Groups like the North American Meat Institute emphasize that antibiotics in their business are already “strictly” regulated and that using them to promote growth -- called "sub-therapeutic" use -- is being phased out, as the Food and Drug Administration directed in 2012.
It is that sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals, a practice already banned in the European Union, that is of principal concern to advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The center is pushing a campaign called Keep Antibiotics Working.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.