Mike the Mad Biologist

Recently, ScienceBlogling Jeff Toney responded to Chief Veterinarian of the National Pork Producers Council Liz Wagstrom’s argument that widespread antibiotic use in agriculture has little effect on the antibiotic resistance problem. He concludes:

However, the scientific facts support this idea [of agricultural misuse being a problem] – imagine the effect on our population of literally thousands of tons of antibiotics used in agriculture and animal husbandry, not intended in any way to support public health. Any microbiologist knows that if you grow bacteria in low levels of antibiotics, you can easily select for surviving cultures that have become resistant.

Is this a culture war of facts?

I’m not so worried about this becoming “a culture war of facts.” Yet. This is the kind of crap the pork lobby has always pulled. Here’s one example of a new definition of ‘pulled pork’:

A couple of years ago, I testified at the Scientific Review of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS). This is a program that conducts research related to antibiotic resistance and agriculture; it also tracks the spread of resistance from the farm, through the food chain, and into the clinic…. the ag lobbyists spent the entire meeting trying to eviscerate the funding for NARMS.

First, they kept referring to ‘statistically sound sampling’ over and over again (clearly, this was a talking point). Of course, who could possibly be against statistically sound sampling? What are you, an Al-Queda sympathizer or sumthin’? What they meant is that NARMS should spend all of its time making the confidence intervals even smaller than they already are. Rather than spending its funding, I dunno, genetically tracking the spread of resistance, the pork lobby wants them to dither around testing thousands more bacteria for resistance.

In other words, they wanted NARMS to spend its money concluding that resistance to antibiotic X occurred at 3 ± 0.1% instead of 3 ± 0.2%. Why? So money wouldn’t be spent on something useful like actually tracking the spread of resistance. Here’s some more ‘pulled pork’:

Second, and I can’t remember the exact phrase, they wanted equal contributions from the three agencies that support NARMS (CDC, FDA, and USDA). Basically, this was a way to reduce funding and personnel for NARMS: CDC, through the PHS, lends NARMS a lot of personnel, while FDA and USDA provide a lot of the funding. By calling for equal contributions (which is the dumbest governance ‘principle’ I’ve ever heard of), personnel staffing and funding would sink to the lowest agency level.

Of course, while they were doing this, they were also claiming that we need more research. We do need more research, but the ag lobby has consistently opposed meaningful research. I know NARMS personnel want to design rigorous surveillance schemes that would move from farms to the specific slaughterhouses, and then to the supermarkets and hospitals that receive food from those slaughterhouses (or that are near the farms and slaughterhouses). I know NARMS personnel want to use resistance to agricutlure-only antibiotics (e.g., florfenicol) as a genetic biomarker to track the srpead of resistance from the farm to the clinic. But they can barely keep their ongoing projects afloat due to the constant political assault from those opposing their work.

The ag lobbyists don’t want the kind of comprehensive study I’ve argued for here (as well as in front of committees) because then they can’t use their other gambit, the ‘cigarettes don’t cause cancer’ argument: yes, that study demonstrated an increase in resistance, but you can’t show that a particular resistant infection resulted from a particular use of antibiotics.

Ag lobbyists will always be corporate scumbags: it is in their natures. But I will get worried if I start to see conservative think faith tanks and pundits arguing that the agricultural use of antibiotics isn’t a problem. Then it becomes a matter of personal identity for their slavering Uruk-hai followers in much the same way creationism is.

Then we’re really fucked.

Comments

  1. #1 Anonymous
    June 24, 2011

    Glad to hear an academic biologist finger the calls for “statistically sound” surveys for the ruse that they often are. The lobbies get well deserved scorn, but too often academic biologists unquestioningly advocate either driving the error term arbitrarily close to zero or adhering to a statistical convention. This as opposed to helping inform actual decisions that may/not be sensitive to any further reduction in uncertainty.

  2. #2 Pat Gardiner
    June 24, 2011

    Well done that man!

    Find time to come to England.

    We have a whole vetocracy that has been pulling the same strokes for years, with gongs to oil the wheels of disinformation.

  3. #3 Katharine
    June 24, 2011

    Anonymous, did you read the paragraph? It said:

    the ag lobbyists spent the entire meeting trying to eviscerate the funding for NARMS.

    First, they kept referring to ‘statistically sound sampling’ over and over again (clearly, this was a talking point). Of course, who could possibly be against statistically sound sampling? What are you, an Al-Queda sympathizer or sumthin’? What they meant is that NARMS should spend all of its time making the confidence intervals even smaller than they already are. Rather than spending its funding, I dunno, genetically tracking the spread of resistance, the pork lobby wants them to dither around testing thousands more bacteria for resistance.

    I don’t see academic scientists being referred to as doing this at all.

  4. #4 Pat Gardiner
    June 25, 2011

    No, I’m not a Al-Queda sympathiser and do not find it necessary to hide my identity.

    I’m simply not too impressed by statistical sampling conducted by British government veterinarians. I had to stand by and watch them fake the tests and my wife being threatened for protesting in her own home.

    They were from the very top rank of British veterinarians protected by crown immunity and self-regulated under royal charter.

    I did my bit and took my complaints to my MP, Parliament in Westminster and OLAF, the serious fraud squad of the EU. Nothing was done.

    I don’t think that has anything to do with Al Qaida but if anyone thinks the statistics coming from Britain’s corrupt vetocracy are reliable, they are sadly misled.

    Why do you think Britain has constant animal and zoonotic epidemics?

    From BSE all the way though to E.Coli, it is the same people backed by dodgy statistics and massive disinformation campaigns.

    Anyway thank you for giving me the opportunity to disassociate myself from Al Qaida. That’s a new one for my broad back to bear. Not even Britain’s corrupt government veterinarians had thought of that one.

  5. #5 Anonymous
    June 26, 2011

    Katherine – Indeed I did read the paragraph. As I said, the lobbies often merit scorn. My point, however, is that it is often the academics who recommend an undifferentiated laundry list of “research needs” intended to reduce uncertainty before any decision can be taken. Eliminating uncertainty is the basic researcher’s reason for being, and they may be loathe to specify or evaluate precisely which research needs, if any, are critical to a decision at hand. This tendency is compatible with the interests of those who benefit from maintaining the status quo.

  6. #6 John Monday
    July 11, 2011

    The pork industry defends horrendous cruelty to animals — factory farmers keep breeding pigs locked in two-foot-wide crates where the pigs can’t even turn around for nearly their entire lives. Eight states have passed laws against this type of animal abuse, yet groups like the National Pork Producers Council still support it.

    More info at this link: http://www.humanesociety.org/news/press_releases/2010/12/smithfield_pigs_121510.html

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