BEEF Editors' Blog

College Student Takes BEEF Editor To Task Over Antibiotic Resistance Article

A college student takes a BEEF editor to task over the magazine's handing on the beef industry's involvment in the antibiotic resistance issue.

Last week, I had the opportunity for an email conversation with a young man who was writing a critique for his community college English class. He chose to critique an old article I wrote about antibiotic resistance that resulted from the first NIAA antibiotics symposium.

Lucky me.

Here’s his initial email:

“I’m doing a critique essay on your article Competing Factors Compound The Antibiotic Debate followed by a research paper on factory farms and antibiotic resistance.  I would like a bit more insight from you so that I may decide whether to argue for or against use of antibiotics in Farm Animals. 

“From your publication afore mentioned it seems you are saying the scare that antibiotics for livestock can cause antibiotics resistance/superbug is purely emotional.   Do you still hold that opinion in the face of the CDC and World Health Organization who say science shows that antibiotics are resistant because of antibiotic over use?

“Furthermore, can you provide me or point me in the direction to data that would prove your case?

“Also, what would you say to people who may suggest that you are a big ag journalist whos opinion cannot be trusted?”

My answer was brief and fairly curt. Basically I told him that antibiotic resistance is an incredibly complex issue and trying to pin the blame on any single use of antibiotics is either intellectually lazy or agenda driven. And neither of those will help find answers. Here’s what I got as a critique:

Critique of Burt Rutherford's View of The Antibiotic Debate

“The Center for Disease Control [CDC] and World Health Organization [WHO] has publically announced that the world is approaching a health crisis. Bacteria are developing antibiotic resistant genes at a faster rate than pharmaceutical companies can produce new and effective antibiotics.  The fear is that unless steps are taken to prevent bacterial resistant genes from spreading the world will slip back into the preantibiotic age where we lose ability to treat infections like tuberculosis, malaria, HIV infections, cancer treatment infections or a simple skin infection.  The WHO and CDC have recommended that use of antibiotics for the growth of livestock be stopped expediently because of the risk of increased development of microbial resistance.  Contrary to the WHO and CDC position's, Burt Rutherford, a graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in Agriculture Journalism and currently Senior Editor of Beef Magazine, suggests in his article, Competing Factors Compound The Antibiotic Debate, the public opinion against the use of antibiotics indiscriminately on livestock is purely emotional and ignores scientific data.

“The purpose of Mr. Rutherford's article is to provide an answer to his readers about claims that emerging antibiotic resistant bacteria can be reduced by halting antibiotic use by cattlemen on livestock.  In doing so, Mr. Rutherford cites Mr. Scott Hurd who in the past held the position of Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety at the USDA.  As reported by Rutherford, Mr. Hurd references 140 different data points that show negligible risk from antibiotic fed livestock contributing to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Moreover, Rutherford cites Hurd as saying antibiotic resistance is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is found almost everywhere on earth to include places rarely frequented by humans.  Mr. Rutherford expounds his position coinciding with Mr. Hurd that the public's outcry against use of antibiotics for food producing animals is purely emotional and not based on scientific research.  Mr. Rutherford's reference from Mr. Hurd notes how the public may be rejecting the science aforementioned because of political, religious or philosophical reasons that scientific data cannot sway.  Rutherford offers his sympathies toward cattlemen who may be troubled by this line of thinking. 

“Upon evaluation of Mr. Rutherford's article, I did not discover any citations that would lead an objective reader to view any of the 140 data points used by Mr. Hurd to make a case for the continued use of antibiotics in livestock.  Additionally, Rutherford shares a claim by Mr. Hurd that the Infectious Disease Society of America states antibiotic resistant bacteria in humans does not correlate in any way with agriculture.  This information could not be substantiated with the information given.  Even a casual reader with minimal understanding can discern that this article is full of oversimplification.  While arguing that bacterial resistance is a naturally occurring phenomenon, Rutherford does not mention the primary argument coming from the public wherein relentless antibiotic overuse and indiscriminant exposure on the farm increases the rate at which bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics.  Furthermore, Rutherford definitively states that those opposed to antibiotic use for livestock are driven purely by an irrational emotion.  Rutherford fails to point out that many of the cries for reduction of antibiotic use for livestock come from prestigious organizations tasked with the health and well being of our nation and the world such as the WHO and CDC.  Mr. Rutherford tries to drum up sympathy for cattlemen with another generalization, noting that cattlemen are frustrated and are in the business to produce safe and remarkable beef.  In this instance, Mr. Rutherford fails to point out that these cattlemen are conducting business for capital gain and the use of antibiotics provides a competitive edge by increasing the weight and health of their cattle for increased profits.  Finally, Mr. Rutherford did not disclose to the reader that his role as Senior Editor for Beef Magazine is to "help keep Beef readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line," which is a clear conflict of interest and blatantly dishonest" (Contact).

“After carefully considering who the author is and the information provided in the article, I cannot recommend this reading to a serious audience.  While ignoring cries from the medical community, Mr. Rutherford suggest those who are concerned with antibiotic resistance coming from farms are delusional.  Because Mr. Rutherford did not provide sources to support his claim that antibiotic resistance does not come from farms, his argument is empty. This is not a good article to read if one is trying to discern this very real and dynamic problem of antibiotic resistance. “

I’m not looking for vindication. He asked for my help, I didn’t give him much, and as a result, things didn’t go so well for me. And that’s okay. If that’s his honest opinion, I admire his courage in sharing it with me.

But I’d like your thoughts. So here’s what I am asking: How would you have answered his questions, had he sent the email to you?  What’s your opinion of his critique of the article? Are we doing a good job covering the antibiotic resistance issue or are we too one-sided? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.



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Discuss this Blog Entry 62

Anonymous (not verified)
on Mar 19, 2014

Where is the 'like' button for this post?

on Mar 12, 2014

Back from feeding, I will continue the conversation.

As I have read the comments since my last entry about defining "factory farm" I notice one mention of the term from another post.

Still undefined. I'm going to leave an opinion and please give me feedback, Burt and others.

IMO the undefined term "factory farm" is only used to "incite emotion", not determine an actual practice.

Please respond with your thoughts.

on Mar 12, 2014

Schedule f--I apolgize for being late to the party. Been putting in a lot of windshield time the past three days and the highway patrol frowns on posting while driving.

I agree. The term "factory farm" was invented by acivists whose intent is to put animal agriculture out of business. It is designed to incite emotion (the negative kind) while putting animal agriculture in a bad light.

To reply to an earlier post of yours, as well as Dr. Apley's post, I forwarded the blog to my new-found friend and I hope he joins the conversation.

Burt Rutherford

on Mar 12, 2014

I believe the college student has joined in our conversation. Thank you for the reply.

I worte this paper (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

Mr. Rutherford, look up a few posts. I've been here since this morning. Regards

Keith Evans (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

Antibiotic use in animal agriculture, other than to treat a specific disease, will one day be a thing of the past unless there is some dramatic research to demonstrate that it is safe.

I understand that some scientists defend widespread use of antibiotics, but the public finds it hard to believe. Most people already know that over prescribing of antibiotics in humans leads to resistance. Diseases like TB have already developed resistance strains.

The student who challenged you Burt is a good example of what many concerned people believe, and what our industry must deal with.

on Mar 12, 2014

Posted by Joe Roybal for Mike Apley, Kansas State University DVM:

The issue with this subject and so many others today is that we have witnessed the death of expertise in this society, and it has been replaced by the University of Google. It is frustrating because there is spin on both sides. Using the offending resistant pathogens of interest is a good basis for discussion.

The CDC 2013 resistance report lists the following categories and pathogens as the biggest challenges in resistance for humans.

Threat level of urgent: Clostridum difficile, Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), Drug-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Sorry, none of these are from food animals. The CRE is incredibly scary, but we’ve never used a carbapenem in food animals in the U.S., and these organisms are spreading to water ways, food animals, and even wild birds of prey in Europe, where they don’t use them in food animals either. They have been documented in humans and in dogs in the U.S. However, since these organisms are multidrug resistant, they can be given an edge in a food animal population by antimicrobials we use in food animals if they get into the animals, but we sure didn’t start it.

Threat level of serious:
Multidrug-resistant Acinetobacter
Drug-resistant Campylobacter
Fluconazole-resistant Candida
Extended spectrum -lactamase producing Enterobacteriaceae (ESBLs)
Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE)
Multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa
Drug-resistant non-typhoidal Salmonella
Drug-resistant Salmonella typhi
Drug-resistant Shigella
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
Drug-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae
Drug-resistant tuberculosis

For these, Campylobacter was the reason the FDA/CVM removed enrofloxacin from poultry in 2005. It is interesting to note that fluoroquinolone resistance has continued to climb in U.S. human Campylobacter isolates since then. Most of these are considered to be foreign travel related, and some of these places do use fluoroquinolones in poultry. I won’t comment on the strength of the FDA's evidence for this removal in this forum.

ESBL’s – this would be third generation cephalosporin (ceftiofur) resistant Salmonella or E. coli. And, there have been a couple of Salmonella outbreaks with the Salmonella resistant to ceftiofur (one in ground turkey, one in ground beef). But Klebsiella? Nope, not us. So yea, we have a little piece of this one, I don’t know how big, but a piece. The drug-resistant non-typhoidal Salmonella would be something that can also come through the food chain.

MRSA? Nope, not us. One paper uses about 86 isolates from around the world for genetic analysis and claims that ST398 (a specific type of MRSA) in swine arose from human origins, but then shows that ST398 has lost it ability to cause disease in humans. The ST398 MRSA isolates can colonize people, but disease from this isolate is very, very, very rare in humans. Human disease with MRSA in the U.S. is from types such as type 100, which is not food animal associated. So when journalists talk about MRSA and then Segway to antibiotic use in food animals, they are ill informed and just trying to stir things up. More people now die from MRSA each year than HIV (AIDS) and tuberculosis combined according to the Infectious Disease Society of America.

All the others in this list? Nope, not us. VRE is a huge problem in people but we have never, ever used a glycopeptide (the class for vancomycin) in food animals in the U.S., in fact this use is specifically banned. Human use has driven this one, and driven it well in the U.S.

There are 3 more bugs with a threat level of concerning, which aren’t food animal origin either.

But we get so busy fighting about our potential effect on human medicine that we forget about our own problems stemming from antibiotic use, for example multidrug resistant Mannheimia haemolytica in high risk calves (one of my recent BEEF columns was on that).

Yes resistance has been around a long time, but our antibiotic use pressure can still select for it to be more frequent. So, the fact that resistance is everywhere and has been for awhile doesn’t make everything we do with antibiotics today OK.

When you put things in perspective, we have an incredibly safe food supply, and the last thing an activist group wants to do is put our safety record in perspective (see my upcoming April BEEF column).

The PEW Trust funded a paper by Marshall and Levy (clin Micro Rev, 24:718-733, 2011) where their goal was to illustrate the connection between resistant bacteria found in human disease or human colonization and resistant bacteria found in food animals. The came up with 10 cases (5 for disease and 5 for infection). That’s 10 cases. One was in ground beef (the only cattle case in the U.S.), one in beef cattle, and one in veal calves. The others were swine or chickens. Do you know how much beef we eat in a year? My estimate is over a billion beef meals a year.

This isn’t to discount the findings of bacteria on retail meat or some of the other epidemiology work, but I am confident that we are not a player in many of the human resistance problems, but can be a player in some of the issues discussed above. Responsible MDs recognize they have a huge problem, and the scientific literature is loaded with studies and reports of programs to try and address this. They are very scared because the writing is on the wall that we will lose the battle against some of these organisms in the near future on the human side. MRSA alone has the potential to change how we do surgery for elective procedures such as artificial joints.

There are more nebulous concepts such as the “reservoir of resistance” where the proposal is that we get antibiotic resistance genes in our intestinal tract through non-pathogen bacterial hitchhikers on our food and in the environment, which may spread these genes to other inhabitants that are capable of causing disease. The ideal theory, it can be neither proven or disproven right now.

What I find is that a very small proportion of those with very vocal opinions on the issue can discuss it to this level. Many of the activist groups don’t want it discussed to this level.

I don’t think everything we do with antibiotics in food animals is necessarily the best approach, but many of the uses are judicious and safe. Our job is to figure out which is which.

I hope our young journalist is monitoring these comments and looks me up.

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD
Diplomate American College of Veterinary Clinical Pharmacology
Department of Clinical Sciences
Kansas State University

John R. Dykers, Jr (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014

Good for you, Mike. An excellent review. Give me chance to add the concept of "mutation rate" that I left out of my earlier comments. The longer the germs in a treated animal, human, bovine, porcine or poultry, are exposed to any antibiotic the more the opportunity for the development of a resistant mutation.

on Mar 12, 2014

This has been a very interesting discussion. I appreciate everyone's thoughts and ideas.

But I have a question for all ya'll--did anybody read the original article that generated such a negative critique? I encourage every one to do that. Here's the link:

Then tell me what you think.

Burt Rutherford

Anonymous (not verified)
on Mar 15, 2014

the use of antibiotics at hospitals has become ridiculous. as comments above point out, at least there is a call to use them judiciously in a variety of circumstances. Most dont know the following.

Hospitals get reimbursed by the govt if they have few complications. urinary tract infection rates are measurable. now some hospitals are putting pts on antibiotics if they had a catheter in their bladder at any time, and if they run a fever are telling their doctors not to culture the urine. this is causing havoc with the practice of good medicine. If you are a patient you should always ask your doctor what meds you are on and WHY

R. D. Welsh, DVM (not verified)
on Mar 23, 2014

I have over 40 years experience in veterinary medicine and veterinary and human microbiology and infectious diseases and I can state that the main focus should be on the development of more antimicrobials. Veterinarians and MD's are immensely limited on choices for treatment of bacterial infections regardless of cause of antibiotic resistance. Research focus should be on discovery of antimicrobials.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Mar 25, 2014

I encourage all to visit to gain some perspective on this issue.

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What's BEEF Editors' Blog?

Everyday musings from BEEF Editors on the latest beef industry news and events.


Burt Rutherford

Burt has more than 35 years of experience communicating about beef industry issues. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works...

Wes Ishmael

Among the industry’s most insightful thinkers, Wes Ishmael concentrates on industry price and market perspectives for BEEF magazine. Along with his monthly “Cattle Economics” column...

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