Scientists Question ABC News Report Linking Antibiotic Resistant Bladder Infections to Chicken; Say Chicken is Safe

July 11, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Amid a report that aired this morning on ABC News’ “Good Morning America,” several in the scientific, veterinary and food safety fields are affirming the safety of chicken and questioning the claims made by the report and the research that formed its basis.

The ABC report cites a small Canadian study that misleadingly claims a definitive link between the E. coli that causes human urinary tract infections and E. coli that could be found on chicken products.

“Bacteria move dynamically, not just in one direction from animals to humans; all pathways must be considered,” said Randall Singer, DVM, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, who reviewed the scientific literature referenced in the ABC report. “The studies in question make the assumption that humans carrying these E. coli acquired them from poultry. The strains did not originate in poultry and likely entered these farms from sources originating in human communities. Perhaps most importantly, the potential transmission of antibiotic resistant E. coli to humans says nothing about why these E. coli are antibiotic resistant in the first place. The resistances observed in these E. coli are common globally and are unlikely to be attributed to chickens given the few antibiotics available for use in poultry in the U.S.”

Dr. Singer continued, “This story and these studies have nothing to do with antibiotics in poultry production and further changes to antibiotic use in poultry will not change the potential human health risks associated with these foodborne E. coli.”

Charles L. Hofacre, DVM, Ph.D, professor and director of clinical services at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, echoed Dr. Singer’s perspective.

“The data is not an accurate representation of how antibiotic resistance transfers from meat to humans,” Dr. Hofacre added.  “The study’s authors are making some really big stretches of their data.”

The National Chicken Council also sought to correct the record about the claim in the ABC report that, “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to livestock and even healthy chicken.”

This statistic is not attributed to FDA.  The fact is there is no comparable human and animal data that makes such an analysis possible. Fully 40 percent of the animal antibiotics counted are compounds not used in human medicine, and therefore, their use in animals cannot be compared with those used in humans. FDA has outlined this point in letters to Congress that list several reasons the data cannot be compared and used in this manner.

Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., National Chicken Council vice president of science and technology, also questioned the results of the study and reminded consumers about proper cooking and handling of poultry products, because all bacteria, resistant or not, are killed by proper cooking.

“While we question the overall conclusions of these findings, the study’s researchers point to improper food handling during meat preparation for food-borne urinary tract infections,” Peterson said.  “So it is always pertinent to remind consumers about the importance of safe food handling and cooking – washing of hands, cutting boards and utensils, cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F and preventing cross contamination in the kitchen.”

In June, the National Chicken Council and a number of livestock, poultry and veterinary medical associations wrote to Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), citing several published, peer-reviewed risk assessments showing any threat to human health from antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production is negligible, and pointed out many of the bacterial illnesses becoming resistant to antibiotics in human medicine have little or no link to antibiotic use in food animals.

“All public health professionals, including veterinarians, are serious about reducing the risks of antibiotic resistance,” the groups wrote.  “It is vital that public policy decisions about the use of these products be made on the basis of science and risk assessment.  The research is clear that the contribution of using antibiotics in food animal production to the human burden of antibiotic resistance is quite small, if it exists at all.

“We are encouraged by the steps being taken by FDA to extend veterinarian involvement in all uses of antibiotics in food animals and believe FDA’s action will be yet another risk mitigation step to ensure the careful and judicious use of antibiotics in food animals,” the groups concluded.

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