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Food Dialogues event provides for great discussion

By Kylene Scott

On Nov. 15, the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance hosted the New York Food Dialogues event in New York City. Three panels discussed agriculture's hottest topics—media, antibiotics, food choices and biotechnology.

In the audience as well as on the panels, there were farmers, ranchers, industry experts, and media representatives. According to www.fooddialogues.com, USFRA is a newly formed alliance consisting of a wide range of prominent farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners. This marks the first time agricultural groups at the national, regional and state levels have collaborated to lead the dialogue and answer Americans' questions about how we raise our food--while being stewards of the environment, responsibly caring for our animals and maintaining strong businesses and communities.

Panelists on the second section, Your Toughest Questions Answered on Antibiotics & Your Food, included the following:

--Barb Determan, pork producer from Iowa, Heartland Marketing Group;

--Dr. Christine Hoang, DVM, MPH, CPH, assistant director of the division of scientific activities of the American Veterinary Medical Association;

--Keith Ayoob, pediatric nutritionist, Albert Einstein School of Medicine;

--Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives, Consumers Union;

--Dr. Karen Jordan, dairy farmer and veterinarian, Brush Creek Swiss Farms, N.C.; and

--Ali Velshi with CNN was the moderator.

Creation of a superbug

Halloran led off the discussion, stating there is currently a crisis situation with antibiotics.

"We have miracle drugs, but diseases that can't be cured," Halloran said. "Eighty percent of antibiotics used on animals are used for growth promotion and disease prevention. This needs to change."

Halloran said she supports legislation that would restrict use of antibiotics on healthy animals. Overuse helps promote resistance and "superbugs" evolve when continually exposed to these drugs.

"Generally, they get into the environment and spread genetic material with others," Halloran said.

Ayoob said he wants one thing from farmers and ranchers.

"I want to have safe food. I'm not a farmer. I leave that to farmers and the vets," Ayoob said. "With food safety everyone has a responsibility."

Ayoob said pathogen presence causing foodborne illness has declined since 1996 by 23 percent.

"I'd imagine if we stopped antibiotic use that number would go up," Ayoob said. "(Other) humans misuse them more than the farmers. I can tell you that."

Antibiotic resistance, he said, is partly caused because humans misuse antibiotics and don't use them according to doctors' instructions. Not using the entire dose is a big problem, Ayoob said.

"In a perfect world I wish we didn't have to use them," Ayoob said. "There'd be fewer pathogens. I think there needs to be more serious discussion and it's not as black and white as it may seem."

Farmer priorities

Determan said producing safe, wholesome food is her No. 1 priority as a hog farmer, and one that she takes seriously. Her farm has a health plan and works closely with their veterinarian to adjust their animal health plan when a problem arises.

"It's just not a blanket plan and it continues to evolve," Determan said. "We use antibiotics as a preventative, but the vet knows where the problems are and helps us prevent them. We want safe food and safe production."

Pork Quality Assurance plans are followed and proper documentation is done on her farm, Determan said.

Hoang, who works with AVMA, said it works to advocate for prevention uses of antibiotics, thus helping the food supply become safer.

"By preventing diseases, there is less of a chance of adhesions and scars and it makes for a safer product," Hoang said. "They don't have to treat it if they keep it healthy. If they are sick they might have to treat with a higher dose and stronger antibiotics than if it was prevented."

Hoang said there are lots of reasons why veterinarians would choose to help prevent disease and not have it spread than wait until the animal is sick. The AVMA has a declaration called judicious principle use. It constitutes the use of drugs that are used judiciously for animal health. The goal is to protect both animal and human health.

Ayoob agreed.

"I wish people would use antibiotics wisely like farmers do," Ayoob said.

Jordan, a dairy farmer and veterinarian, works extremely hard to prevent disease through a number of things including animal husbandry practices, nutrition and veterinary care.

"We monitor their diet and a supported nutritional program will support the immune system," Jordan said. "Antibiotics is a tool we use, not the first thing."

At her dairy they are striving to work for the welfare of the animals. When asked if there was a benefit to curtailing the use of antibiotics, Jordan had the health and welfare of her animals in mind.

"In agriculture, in the dairy industry we constantly strive to improve," Jordan said. "We try to create a better wheel, and try to minimize the use of antibiotics."

Human role

Halloran believes humans play a role in antibiotic resistance, but the real problem still lies with food production. Pointing out a study comparing organic and conventionally raised poultry, chicken raised organically tested salmonella free.

"It shows farmers can raise chickens without antibiotics and they are not overrun with disease," Halloran said.

Hoang does see the differences in raising conventional verses organic, but there has also been a natural decline in salmonella resistance among species, she said.

There are production systems that allow for food to be raised without antibiotics, Halloran said, saying less dense growing systems and they don't cost too terribly much more than conventional.

Halloran said consumers do have a choice in what they buy and a number of supermarkets that do sell antibiotic-free products. There are also a number of certifiers working on labels for the products as well.

In order to provide safe pork to consumers, Determan said there are a number of rules, regulations and standards provided by the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Food Safety and Inspection Service for antibiotics and withdrawal times for those drugs used in food animals.

Although with the control systems in place, Halloran is still concerned.

"The primary concern is growth of resistant bugs that can end up in food," she said. "Some of the bugs are very promiscuous and can exchange genetic material very easily. Some workers even pick up resistant strains."

Halloran said scientists are now able to link genetic material and can fingerprint it to see where the bacteria came from.

The what-ifs

When asked what her dairy would do when a mandate was issued to use no antibiotics, Jordan said it wouldn't be ideal to wake up one morning and not be able to use a valuable herd health tool.

"I would hope there would be tools that would come down for us to use, but I ask, what is the animal welfare going to be like?" Jordan said. "The ag industry is not stupid. We see trends and are just as concerned as everyone else. We don't want to lose effectiveness. We will keep looking and keep working."

Determan agrees, and like Jordan, her biggest concern is the effect on her animal's welfare.

"Animal welfare is our No. 1 concern," Determan said. "(We) have to ask ourselves what tools are available. Producers spend a lot of money to find alternatives to drugs and there has been progress in the last 10 years finding solutions."

Hog producers, Determan said, have changed management and learned to take better care of their animals in the past decade.

"There are a lot of steps being taken," Determan said. "We will keep testing and make the best decisions we can."

Jordan agrees. For a dairy cow on her farm it costs $7.23 per cow per day to feed. If she produces 100 pounds of milk a day and gets sick, it will drop to 30 pounds. She needs at least 36 pounds a day to earn her keep. With mastitis, without treatment she won't get back into production and the dairy can't recoup that cost.

"Yes, she lives, but she's not productive," Jordan said.

Determan said pork producers are also concerned with cost.

"The cost that is incurred for antibiotics in animals is high," she said. "We don't just throw it in there. We use the least amount possible. That's the bottom line."

A link

Eventually the conversation led to a possible link between antibiotic use in food animals and its effect on humans, but Ayoob spoke up about the confusion between antibiotics and hormones. Most commonly thought of rSBT--a hormone found in milk--has been most in the news and easily recognized. He stressed that hormones used in food animals won't work on people and likely cannot be linked to early puberty in humans.

"The cause (of early puberty) is obesity," Ayoob said. "They are much more likely to get early puberty if they are overweight."

For more information about the Food Dialogues event visit www.fooddialogues.com/.

Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at kscott@hpj.com.

Date: 12/10/2012

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