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How Activists and the Media Mislead: Antibiotics Edition

Last week the local ABC affiliate in DC aired a scary segment claiming antibiotic-resistant bacteria were detected on meat bought at local grocery stores. It’s a lesson in how what’s said—or unsaid—can influence unsuspecting viewers.

Here’s some background for the uninitiated: Antibiotics are substances that kill bacteria. They are used both in human medicine and in animal medicine. While they kill bacteria (such as Salmonella) they are ineffective against viruses (such as colds). Bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics, so it’s important that we use these drugs judiciously.

About 70% of antibiotics used in the US are given to animals. This may seem high, but consider there are about 30 times more farm animals than people in the US—and some of these animals (pigs, cows) are considerably larger by body weight and thus need more medicine. Farmers use antibiotics to treat sick animals or to prevent animals from getting sick.

With that said, let’s get to the story. You can read about and watch the story here. In short, they tested some poultry from the grocery store, and quite a few samples had antibiotic-resistant bacteria on it. A George Washington University professor claims antibiotic resistance is a huge risk and that farms are to blame.

Here are the problems.

Antibiotic resistance can also be driven by misuse in human medicine. In fact, the CDC estimates that one-third of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary. This angle isn’t addressed at all in the story. And it’s quite important: Livestock are several steps removed from the general populace, while a person contracting MRSA (resistant staph infection) in a hospital is not. And the transmission of MRSA is epidemic.

Bacteria in meat is killed by cooking it (most people don’t eat raw chicken). And cross-contamination can be stopped by following simple food-handling procedures. This is given a tiny amount of air time and well after the main danger “narrative” has been established.

About 30 percent of antibiotics used in farm animals are not used in human medicine. This fact is not included in the story, either.

One of the anchors claims near the end that “70 percent of the antibiotics end up in our food supply”—which viewers will interpret to mean their meat is contaminated with drugs. This is false. The federal government mandates that livestock given medicine go through a waiting period to eliminate the drugs before they enter the food supply. This fact is also unmentioned. The reporter is either uninformed or intentionally confusing antibiotics given to an animal when ill versus bacteria that can be on the surface of meat that can happen anywhere in the farm to plate journey (remember, cook the meat!).

Additionally, the investigative reporter claims incorrectly (again) that “there’s really very little regulation in conventional agriculture to prevent industry from overusing antibiotics,” which isn’t true. FDA guidelines require that veterinarians sign off on antibiotic use on farms and require antibiotics be used only to treat or prevent disease.

Some of this confusion by the reporter may be tied to her marriage. Lisa Fletcher, who recently was a reporter for Al Jazeera is also the wife of Wayne Pacelle, former CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. Fletcher is a known high-profile vegan and is married to a guy who attacks animal agriculture constantly (including on the antibiotics issue).  Should ABC News allow her to do unbalanced and uninformed stories on meat? Certainly the news station should have disclosed these conflicts of interest.

Of course, Fletcher needed some science to round out the story. Enter the George Washington University professor Lance Price, whose opinion forms the backbone of the story. Price is an activist in this antibiotics area. He co-signed a letter with radical environmental activists calling on Yum! Brands, which owns KFC and Taco Bell, to change its corporate policy regarding how its farm suppliers are allowed to use antibiotics. Oops. This was not disclosed, either.

The activists want to ban preventive uses of antibiotics on farms, which would raise the costs of production as a consequence of more animals getting sick and dying. That in turn will increase your costs at the supermarket or restaurant. Once you understand agendas, and selective reporting or twisting of facts, you’ll become as skeptical of “fake news” as so many others.