50 Sheds of Grey – Mega Farms and Animal Welfare Are Not Black and White Issues

Further to yesterday’s blog post here, I was asked for my views on this article in the Telegraph by companion animal vet Pete Wedderburn. Given my propensity to use 17 words when three will do (I blame PhD training…) it was easier to blog about it than reply via Twitter.

TelegraphTo be fair to Dr Wedderburn, his article does note the importance of economies of scale and potential for targeted veterinary care on large operations; and it’s absolutely true that we, as consumers, demand affordable food. The average Briton spends only 8.2% of their income on food. Given how much we should value the nutritional advantages provided by meat, milk and eggs for growth, development and health, I have no issue with the suggestion that we should pay more (if needed) for higher welfare animal products.

Yet that’s where the argument gets difficult, and in the case of the Telegraph article, moves away from logic, science and economics towards anthropomorphism, emotion and the supposition that we can assess animal welfare based on human experience. If there was an emotive language quotient for the article, it went up significantly in the anti-mega-farm section.

Unpalatable (pun intended) a truth as it may be, we do not apply to the same standards to animals that we intend to eat (cows, pig, chickens) as to companion animals (it’s somewhat amusing that the Telegraph article was published within the “Pets” section), or indeed to animals that we consider to be pests (rats, mice, insects etc). Do many of us worry about the living conditions of house spiders or wasps, aside how we can kill them when they become a menace? No. Activist groups claim that this is speciesism, but I’d contend that it’s simply a factor of being human. We cannot have our bacon and eat it – if we apply the same standards to pets and farm animals (eliminating the “double standard” cited in the article) then perhaps by extension, just as we wouldn’t tuck into a steak from our pet labrador, we should cease to eat farm animals.

The ultimate irony is that, if asked, none of us would be happy to be killed and eaten. Slaughter is an inevitable truth of meat production, regardless of the conditions in which the animal is reared – if we cannot reconcile ourselves to the fact that we, as humans, would not be happy with that outcome, can we really assume that we can speak for animals’ preferences in any other circumstance?

“Animal welfare is a significant one [issue]: intensively kept farm animals never experience the open air, and never see blue skies” Being outside in the sunshine is undeniably lovely. However, we’re in the midst of the ill-named British “summer”. The rain is driving down and the Hereford cattle in the field I drove past five minutes ago were sheltering under a tree, ironically, voluntarily choosing to be in far closer quarters than cattle housed in a shed. We need to move away from the pervasive but false image of perpetual blue skies and sunshine. Would I personally wish to exist within the human equivalent of a battery cage? Of course not. Yet neither would I wish to be outside in pouring rain and cold wind. It’s all about balance. Do I know what a cow, chicken or pig prefers? No. We need further research to elucidate animal preferences and, *if* required, to amend our farming systems.

Animal health is another concern: with thousands of animals living so closely together, the risk of rapid spread of contagious disease must be higher.” At face value – true. However, as with so many rhetorical statements, this bears further examination. The risk is higher. Not the incidence, nor the mortality or impact on the animals, the risk. We can have a significant increase in risk that still makes little difference to the likelihood of an event happening. Take, for example, the announcement that processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer by 18%. Immediate media reaction? “Bacon will totally kill you!” Actual change in relative risk for the average person? An increase from 5 people out of every 100 contracting colon cancer, to 6 people out of every 100. Using blanket statements about increased risk, without backing them with any science or relative risk metrics (i.e. the likelihood of an incident actually occurring) is meaningless, yet an effective fear-mongering tool. If any farm (regardless of size) has excellent health plans in place, employs effective veterinary supervision and treatment and has appropriate biosecurity and isolation for sick animals, there is no reason to suggest that disease X will spread unchecked. Why did the UK government mandate for poultry to be housed when the risk of avian influenza was high? Because it’s spread by contact with wild birds and poultry, in precisely the supposedly healthy conditions proposed by the Telegraph article.

The supposition that “…if something does go wrong, it can go wrong on a massive scale, affecting thousands of animals at one time” is again correct – with one significant caveat. Relative risk again comes into play – why would a ventilation system be more likely to fail on a large operation than a small operation? A risk may exist, but again, it’s the relative risk (ignored by the Telegraph article) that is more important. To use a human example, if the power supply fails to a large hospital, we would assume that they would have more back-up systems in place than in a small cottage hospital. Why should Dr Wedderburn assume that large farms do not have operating procedures and practices in place to deal with disaster situations? In the USA last year, 35,000 cattle died during a two-day snowstorm, the majority not housed, but in open fields. Being able to control the environment and feed supply is a major advantage of housed systems – assuming the worst case scenario is business as usual is misleading at best.

Animal welfare is a useful tool with which to bash specific farming operations, because it carries a certain intangibility. What does good animal welfare really mean? How is it assessed? Are healthy animals automatically “happy” or in a good welfare state? Perhaps it’s time to revisit and challenge the rhetoric. Given that high-producing livestock should, by definition, be healthy, does that mean that we can use milk or meat yield as an indicator of welfare? Not necessarily. If we have to reduce the use of critically-important antibiotics, will animal welfare suffer? Not if we use other husbandry measures to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place (see figure below). Is a cow who is genetically programmed to produce 40 kg of milk per day automatically more stressed than one who is only programmed to produce 20 kg of milk? Few people would suggest that a woman capable of producing copious quantities of breast milk is more stressed than one producing a small amount, yet we try to apply this logic to livestock.

Langford CIA decreaseEmotion is a far more effective tool to lead conversations about controversial issues than science – perhaps its time to take the bull by the horns and get in touch with our touchy-feely side to communicate as the activists do. Ultimately we need to reassure consumers that, as with all issues, there’s no ideal or one-size-fits-all farming system, just a million shades (sheds!) of grey.

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Got Ebola? Just Take Some Vitamin C.

Ebola

It appears that the lunatics are taking over the asylum. This is another post about “things that irritate me” – just a short rant this time about bad science and fear-mongering. The current irritant is the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH; as publicized by the Organic Consumers Association), which claims that Ebola can be prevented and treated naturally, but that these remedies are being (gasp!) “ignored by doctors and the government”.

If you’re really concerned that you may catch Ebola, the easiest way to avoid it is not to have intimate contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids; but never fear, if you do, the ANH have a list of “proven” natural remedies that will stop Ebola dead in its tracks. For example, Ebola is selenium-dependant, making people who’re already selenium-deficient more vulnerable to the disease, so if you just load up with mega-doses of selenium, you’ll be fine. Equally, both silver and vitamin C are antiviral, so add these to your selenium cocktail and you won’t just be fine, you’ll be invincible!

There’s just one problem – none of these miracle remedies have actually been tested against Ebola, which ANH claim is because of government/big drug conspiracies. It’s true that increasing your intake of selenium and vitamins C, D and E should boost your immune system to a degree, but you can’t then have a long smooch with somebody who’s infected with Ebola and expect to be immune. More importantly, given the ANH’s claims of natural “treatment”, there is zero evidence that any of these purported remedies provide a cure.

Most worrying of all is the final tagline: “Alert! Write to both FDA and Congress. Ask them to review natural treatments for Ebola without the lengthy drug approval process“. This lengthy drug approval process exists to ensure that drugs are safe, efficacious and do not cause unexpected or severe side-effects. It costs drug companies millions of dollars to get a single drug to market through this process, which is required for every new drug in order to protect our health. Furthermore, “natural” chemicals are not safe or effective simply because they exist in nature. Arsenic, cyanide and mercury are all inherently natural, as are deadly nightshade and death cap mushrooms. The “action alert” above is an example of bad science and fear-mongering at its worst – a dangerous remedy that will do nothing to halt the spread of the disease – and will probably hasten the patient’s death in the process.

One In Five Children Who Contract Diphtheria Die – Are Anti-Vaccination Activists Dangerous, Or Simply Misinformed?

vaccine1I had the pleasure of speaking in the plenary session at the 2014 AAVLD/USAHA Annual Meeting this week, where, among other topics, we discussed risk. One of the other panelists made the best point that I’ve heard in a long time – activists hate denominators.

Think about the last few scare stories you’ve seen – there’s no doubt that it is frightening to read that 3,000 people die from food poisoning each year, or that, to date, 4,546 people have died from Ebola (one in the USA). Yet if we put this into context, one person out of 315 million in the USA dying from Ebola is a tiny tiny fraction, and a correspondingly tiny risk.

Activists hate denominators because they provide us with context, a way to assess whether we’re really in danger. Statistically speaking, you’re  more likely to die from a traffic accident (one in 71 deaths), flu (one in 1,642 deaths), or syphilis (one in 55,866 deaths) than Ebola (one in 2,515,458 deaths). Which brings me to my current favorite activist, anti-vaccine zealot and proponent of “well-researched” bad science, Modern Alternative Mama (MAM). Thus week, she’s been promoting what she optimistically calls a “risk:benefit analysis” of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine.

Interestingly, she appears to consider all vaccine risks equal: death is no more of a minor inconvenience than redness at an injection site, and she earnestly notes that there is “no known benefit to getting diphtheria“. That sentence alone causes the mind to boggle. On a positive note, she does use valid CDC data, reporting that there were 3,169 adverse effects attributed to DTaP in 2011, which she claims is an underestimate of up to 9-fold.

So let’s run the numbers. Each year, approximately 3.95 million babies are born, of which 82.5% are given the DTaP vaccine. Between birth and 6 years of age, 5 doses of DTaP are recommended, so each year, 5 x 3.95 million x 82.5% = 16,293,750 doses are given (note that babies will have three each in that year, but older children (18 months and 4-6 years) will also receive a dose). Let’s give MAM the benefit of the doubt and assume adverse vaccine events are actually 5x the cited CDC number, at 15,845 events. The CDC classifies 10% of these events as “serious”, which equals 1,585 serious events per year.

So what is your child’s chance of having a serious reaction to the DTaP vaccine? 1,585/16,293,750 = 0.0000973, or one in 10,277 children will have a serious reaction to DTaP.

By contrast, we could take our chances in not vaccinating and hope that our child doesn’t contract diphtheria, which carries a risk of death of up to 20% in children under five years old. That means one in five children who contract diphtheria will die.

Given MAM’s antagonism towards vaccines, it’s not altogether surprising that she concludes “Although diphtheria is serious, it appears that the risk from the vaccine is much greater.” Yet let’s be realistic about this. One in 10,277 children will have a serious reaction to DTaP (serious reactions does not mean death, although that is one possible outcome) versus one in five children who will die after contracting diphtheria.

Admittedly that’s assuming that all unvaccinated children will get diphtheria. They won’t, but even if only 5% do, the risk is still overwhelmingly lower in the vaccine category (one in 10,277 suffering a serious reaction to the vaccine vs. one in 100 dying from diphtheria).

The site carries a disclaimer that writers are neither education professionals nor providing medical advice, yet the suggestion (by the author herself) that this is a well-researched, scientific post will no doubt cause some parents to congratulate themselves on their choice to not vaccinate.

This pseudoscientific scaremongering is dangerous, potentially lethal. All parents are concerned for their children’s health and welfare, but propounding nonsensical “risk:benefit analyses” that do not consider the denominator but simply the total adverse effects does not allow any parent to make a rational and well-considered decision. If my child is the one in 10,277 who suffers a serious DTaP vaccine reaction, I’m unlikely to care whether she is one of few or many, but at least I can make the decision whether or not to vaccinate (my answer is an overwhelming “yes”) based on risk. We all want our babies to grow up healthy and happy – in this case, it’s time to be a mainstream vaccinating Mama, rather than a “modern alternative” one.