- - Thursday, July 9, 2015

The wisdom of crowds is a concept that has remarkable predictability. Often, the dispersed knowledge of millions of people making informed decisions is more reliable than the informed bias of policy activists.

When it comes to the latest food scare, antibiotics and resistant bacteria, polling shows the public knows two things. Over-prescription by doctors and failure to take the full dose of needed medicine by patients are at the heart of the problem. The natural evolution of bacterial resistance comes in third.

But a growing network of anti-animal-agriculture radicals like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and “natural” food companies like Chipotle are looking to profit from their agendas at the expense of the uninformed. Add in opportunistic health wackos like the Food Babe, the mysteriously popular blogger who has said that microwaved water reacts similarly to water called “Satan” and you have a profile of the irresponsible and misinformed. They blame the use of low-dose medicine on farms for the resistance problem.

Well, the crowds are right. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50 percent of antibiotics prescribed by doctors are either not needed or not maximally effective.

Companies like Chipotle believe they can enhance their reputation by declaring their food is free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), even though most scientists have greenlighted GMOs. Now that this marketing ploy has gone stale, they are trumpeting so-called “no-antibiotics-ever meat.” And you can bet this was driven by their marketing department or PR agency, not by credible science.

Farm veterinarians will tell you that animals in the food supply are “antibiotic-free.” Just as any drug you take passes out of your system over a short time, so it is with farm animals. (Do you think you still have the antibiotics in your system that you took years earlier?) In fact, each drug given to various types of animals has different mandated elimination periods established by the Food and Drug Administration before those animals enter the food supply.

Using misleading statistics, activists are putting public health and animal welfare at risk, while distracting from real problems. These activists focus attention solely on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, even when the drugs are used for disease prevention and to treat sick livestock.

Since the Humane Society’s goal is (supposedly) animal welfare, the group’s involvement in the antibiotic issue is bizarre. How is it “humane” to allow animals to fall ill? The real deal is that the Humane Society is a vegan organization. Use the antibiotic issue successfully and more animals die. That drives up the price of your hamburger. Chipotle admits as much in a passage buried in its annual report, referring to the fact that “herd losses” due to disease may be greater on Chipotle supplier farms.

The no-antibiotics-ever crowd has another dirty little secret. Without low-dose preventive medicines, animals may not just get sick. They may inadvertently be shuffled off into the conventional food system.

Denmark banned many classes of antibiotics from livestock use, but data show that the move didn’t substantially affect resistance rates. Further, the Danish experience shows that banning preventive use of antibiotics simply increases therapeutic uses — in other words, plenty of antibiotics are used; animals just get sick first.

If you really want to hit the problem of developing antibiotic resistance head-on, the single most important thing you can do as a consumer is not ask your doctor to prescribe antibiotics for a viral infection like a cold or the flu. Antibiotics are worse than useless on viruses — they don’t make the patient any healthier and might lead to resistance. And if you do have a bacterial infection that requires antibiotic treatment, the Mayo Clinic directs that you complete the course of pills in accordance with the label directions even if you’re feeling better.

There is a place for antibiotic use in animal agriculture. Vegan activists and corporations after a quick buck focusing on farmers rather than doctors and patients are putting both animal and human health at risk.

Rick Berman is president of Berman and Co., a Washington public affairs firm.

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