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What CBS got wrong

Published Mar. 26, 2010 | Discuss this article on Facebook
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Buckeye Farm News

A recent two-part story on CBS Evening News about the risk of using antibiotics with food animals was “an anxiety producing story” that has stirred up complaints from the ag industry that it was unbalanced and sensationalistic, said a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official.

“The CBS report overlapped a number of different pieces so the information they gave had much more anxiety producing methods than was necessary,” said Scott Hurd, former USDA undersecretary of food safety, on OFBF's radio show Town Hall Ohio.

Katie Couric’s “Ticking Time Bomb” report unfairly criticized the use of antibiotics in agriculture, saying they are a risk to public health, said Hurd, who is now with the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University. The opposite is true – banning antibiotics from animal agriculture could cause an increased risk to human health, he said.

Hurd said one study showed that removing antibiotics from poultry makes it more likely that they will have subclinical illnesses, which means they look fine but have internal problems, increasing the possibility that they will carry salmonella or campylobacter bacteria on their carcasses, Hurd said.

“The bottom line is that healthy animals make safe food, and farmers need antibiotics to get that job done," he said.

The CBS report also highlighted a program started in Denmark years ago that banned antibiotics for growth-promotion and prevention uses. The CBS report said “after the ban in Denmark, studies show removing antibiotics from farms drastically reduced antibiotic resistant bacteria in animals and food.” Hurd disagreed.

“The number of pigs they had to treat with antibiotics actually doubled. The World Health Organization reviewed that policy in 2002 and they stated unequivocally ‘we find no evidence for improvement in public health.’ They also said there was an increase in the cost of pig production and increase in pig mortality, said Hurd, who noted that Denmark raises fewer pigs than Iowa.

Hurd also took issue with CBS News for its description of a University of Iowa study about methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in hogs in Iowa. CBS reported three-fourths of the hogs and two-thirds of the workers had MRSA and all were on farms that use antibiotics. The news report gave the impression that human MRSA infections are associated with livestock, and that is not true, he said. MRSA infections in animals are not the same as those that happen to people in hospitals.

“This is a Reader’s Digest version of the science done by the researchers,” Hurd said, noting that very few pigs were tested. “What CBS failed to mention was that this type (of MRSA) is a different strain than what we find in humans.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a letter to Congress last year, emphasizing that if MRSA was transmitted from food-producing animals to people that it would be for a very small proportion of human infections in the United States.

“There’s no or very little connection between animals and meat and these human cases of MRSA,” Hurd said.

Hurd criticized the experts that CBS News used to describe risk assessments for antibiotic resistance.

“They only looked at pieces of the causal chain to find some resistant infection here and find some there and connected some dots across the whole food chain … it’s a very complicated process to get meat from the farm to the table and in that process there’s a lot of ways to stop and reduce any chance of resistant infections,” he said. 

 

A Media Guide To Telling Fairy Tales

Mike Smith of Food Chain Communications told Town Hall Ohio listeners about what methods CBS News and other media giants use to tell a compelling story, which he said sometimes uses a fairy tale.

“(Katie Couric) is really being loyal to old, almost ancient elements of storytelling that we see in nearly every folk tale, fable and fairy tale that goes back to the old times of people telling stories around the fireside,” he said.

Smith broke down the CBS News report on antibiotics like a fairy tale and described some of the key characters or elements:

Villain – “Factory farms” with CBS using cold, insensitive images such as closed gates and dead animals.

Magical helper – This character helps move the hero along, often using magic. On the antibiotics episode, it is a representative of Pew Charitable Trusts Health and Human Services who talks about antibiotics without citing any significant science, essentially waving a magic wand over the science issue.

Dispatcher – This character is like the magical helper and identifies the immediate danger. In this case, a professor who wrote a report for the PEW foundation that supported ending many uses of farm antibiotics.

Hero – Couric, who wants to be known as a “woman of the people” and is sent “all the way into the hinterlands of Iowa and Oklahoma to fight this evil villain,” Hurd said. She is frustrated by the “false hero” or representatives of traditional agriculture.

False hero – Traditional agriculture, which challenges the hero’s actions.

To read more about the  fairy tale elements of the CBS News report, visit http://tinyurl.com/cbstale



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