From The Archers to Antibiotic Resistance – Has BBC Radio 4 Lost the Plot?

ResistanceAfter some excellent commentaries on future food production and Brexit on Farming Today last week, it seems that, not content with domestic violence, miscarriage and admitting women to the Ambridge cricket team (the horror of it!) on The Archers, BBC Radio 4 has dived into modern agricultural issues with a vengeance. However, their latest venture has all the balance and perspective of Nigel Farage faced with a chicken vindaloo and a team of migrant NHS workers.

Developed through the Wellcome Trust Experimental Stories Unit and written by Val McDermid, well-known for her crime novels, “Resistance” describes the impact of an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant swine erysipelas, which passes swiftly from contaminated sausages at a music festival to the general public exhibiting dreaded “purple spots” and collapsing at the supermarket checkout.

Alas, having listened to the first two episodes with more than a passing interest (after all, antibiotic resistance is a huge issue for our industry, both from an animal and human health perspective), it’s clear that an aluminium helmet and a “meat is murder” sign may be required listening accessories. The main protagonist is a slightly holier-than-thou vegetarian who was turned away from meat by the animal rights activists with whom she worked on a story and is currently scratching around to find freelance work after her editors became afraid of “real investigative journalism.”

Cue a cliched storyline, lined up in true pantomime fashion with neon signs alerting the listener to every plot development. The contaminated meat is traced back to a “factory” farm in an urban location, with pigs kept in “tiny pens with no room to lie down or turn around.” A specialist (non-local) vet throws antibiotics at the animals and a surly, secretive, Eastern-European-accented farm manager doesn’t seem keen on a journalist sniffing around.

The  racial stereotyping is unfortunate given how much UK agriculture relies on workers from Europe and beyond, and the farm portrayed as secretive, polluting water and soil, and utterly lacking transparency. By contrast, organic systems with “humanely-farmed” animals, and “well-scrubbed, rare breed pigs” are the dramatic ideal. Yet in real life, farm assurance schemes such as Red Tractor (which covers >80% of UK pork) ensure that pigs are kept in environments that provide sufficient space; are given suitable, healthy feed; and that waste is managed to prevent water or soil contamination. Does that mean that every pig farm is perfect? No. So does it mean that poor husbandry, environmental pollution and rampant overuse of pharmaceutical drugs is the norm? Absolutely not.

The casual listener might be horrified by the implications of antibiotic resistance for human health, but never fear, the drama suggests all will be well as long as your sausage comes from an organic Berkshire pig hand-raised on acorns. However, bacterial resistance to antibiotics occurs naturally and can be maintained or increased by any antibiotic use – in people, livestock or companion animals – not simply by use on conventional farms. Indeed, it’s vital to remember that organic operations are permitted to use antibiotics (as per the Soil Association organic standards), especially if they are the “best way to reduce suffering, save life or restore your animal’s health.” There is no blanket antibiotic prohibition on organic operations, as is often assumed.

Still more rhetoric invades the human health side of the drama – doctors try to dismiss and cover-up the public health implications, antibiotic researchers are hampered by lack of funds (possibly the most crucial but least discussed issue of the entire drama) and “big pharma” is lambasted for being more interested in developing drugs that generate long-term profit (e.g. diabetes or high blood pressure medication) than antibiotics that only need to be used once.

There is an immediate and definite need to develop new antibiotics both for animal and human health, yet if effective new drugs are found they’re unlikely to be distributed widely, but stored in case of an epidemic. Livestock farmers and vets have a huge responsibility in protecting both animal and human health, but so do doctors, food processors and ultimately all of us – simple hygiene measures, including effective hand-washing, are key to preventing the spread of disease.

Both national and global programs have been implemented to quantify, assess and reduce antimicrobial use; veterinary scientists are actively involved in on-farm research and interventions to reduce both antimicrobial use and resistance; and animal health companies (so-called”big pharma”) have joined with food processors, retailers, charitable foundations and human/veterinary medicine associations in taking a One Health approach (incorporating the health of people, animals and their environments) to making sure that antibiotics that are critically important for human medicine are withdrawn from animal use, and that the speed and spread of antibiotic resistance is reduced. Unless the rabid journalist has a serious epiphany in the third episode (to which I have not yet listened) it seems that facts are going to be overwhelmed by fiction as the efforts and advances made by global livestock producers are ignored.

I’m not suggesting that all drama should be absolutely true to life, but when real-life, topical, scientific issues are discussed, surely broadcasting agencies have a responsibility to be factual rather than alarmist? It’s unfortunate that this drama, written by a famous author and advised by a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Warwick, seems to have been developed without input from experts in veterinary science, animal production or on-farm antibiotic use. Furthermore, given the Wellcome Trust’s role as a global medical charity, one would assume that they have a responsibility to provide factual information, especially when their sponsorship must ultimately have been publicly funded. Instead, as with so many sensationalist dramas, it seems the world is going to end and we are the innocent victims of others greed for profit. Better switch to the organic sausage, or better still, the tofu surprise.

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Is It Time We Stopped Shouting About The Dietary Guidelines?

The recent report by the advisory committee to the USDA dietary guidelines has certainly caused a media stir in the past week or so. There’s a lot of nutritional common sense in the report – eat more fruit, veg, and dairy, reduce carbs and sweetened drinks/snacks, and moderate alcohol intake. Yet there’s a kicker – from both a health and a sustainability perspective, Americans should apparently be guided to consume less animal-based foods.

10982813_934682089898559_3461048965358255082_oWhen the report was released, my Twitter notifications, Facebook feed and email inbox exploded. Memes like the one to the left appeared on every (virtual) street corner, and the report was mentioned in every online newsletter, whether agricultural or mainstream media. It’s this press coverage rather than the content of the report, that really concerns me.

Individuals don’t pay a lot of attention to a government report on nutrition. Despite the fact that six updates to the guidelines have been released since their inception in 1980, we are all still eating too many Twinkies in front of the TV and super-sized takeout meals in the car, rather than chowing down on broccoli and lentil quinoa bake.

Headlines CollageYet people do pay attention to headlines like “Less meat, more veggies: big food is freaking out about the “nonsensical” new dietary guidelines” and others shown to the left. The media sub-text is that big bad food producers (so different from the lovely local farmer who sells heirloom breed poultry at $18/lb at the farmers market) are appalled by the release of this governmental bad science that’s keeping them from their quest to keep you unhealthily addicted to triple cheeseburgers washed down with a 500-calorie soda, and will do anything to suppress it.

This makes me wonder – at what point do we need quiet, stealthy change, rather than loud protests that attract the attention of people who would otherwise never have read about the guidelines? At what point does industry protesting seem like a modern version of “The lady doth protest too much“?

Rather than posting on Facebook or Twitter that the report is nonsense because the committee of nutritionists ventured into the bottomless pit that is sustainability; why don’t we instead extol the virtues of producing high-quality, nutritious, safe and affordable lean meat, and aim to reach the people who haven’t seen the hyperbolic headlines or read the guidelines simply because they’ve seen a lot of talk about them on Twitter? The old showbiz saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity certainly applies here – the extent of the reporting on the industry backlash against the report means they have probably been noted by far more people that they otherwise might.

The impact of the dietary guidelines recommendations upon purchasing programs is far higher than on individuals, and does give rise to concern. Globally, one in seven children don’t have enough food, and school lunches are often the only guaranteed source of high-quality protein available to children in impoverished families. I may be being overly sceptical, but I suspect that if meat consumption in schools is reduced, it’s unlikely to be replaced with a visually and gastronomically-appealing, nutritionally-complete vegetarian alternative.

Sustainability doesn’t just mean carbon, indeed, environmentally it extends far further than the land, water and energy use assessed by the dietary guidelines advisory committee into far bigger questions. These include the fact that we cannot grow human food crops on all types of land; water quality vs. quantity; the need to protect wildlife biodiversity in marginal and rangeland environments; the use of animal manures vs. inorganic fertilisers; environmental costs of sourcing replacements for animal by-products in manufacturing and other industries; and many other issues. Simply stating that meat-based diet X has a higher carbon footprint or land use than plant-based diet Y is not sufficient justification for 316 million people to reduce their consumption of a specific food. Indeed, despite the conclusions of the committee, data from the US EPA attributing only 2.1% of the national carbon footprint to meat production suggests that even if everybody reduced their intake of beef, lamb and pork, it would have a negligible effect on carbon emissions.

Could we all reduce our individual environmental impact? Absolutely. Yet as stated with regards to dietary change in the advisory report, it has to be done with consideration for our individual biological, medical and cultural requirements. As humans, we have biological and medical requirements for dietary protein, and some would even argue that grilling a 16-oz ribeye is a cultural event. I have every sympathy for the USDA committee*, who were faced with a Herculean task to fulfill, but in this case, they only succeeded in cutting off one head from the multi-craniumed Hydra – and it grew another 50 in its place.

*Many people have already commented on the suitability (or not) of the committee to evaluate diet sustainability, but to give them their due, they do appear to have looked beyond greenhouse gases to land, water and energy use. They are nutrition specialists, not sustainability experts, but it would be difficult (impossible) to find a committee comprising people who were all experts in nutrition, sustainability, economics, policy, behaviour and all the other facets of the report. Nonetheless, the sustainability recommendations appear to be based on a small number of papers, many of which are based on dietary information from other regions (Germany, UK, Italy) which will also have different levels of animal and crop production. As somebody who was born and bred in the UK before moving to the USA I find it difficult to believe that the average American’s diet uses substantially more land (for example) than the average UK person, as cited in the report.

Would Being Vegan Really Solve Climate Change? Not if We Don’t Kill the Cows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend of mine drew my attention to this NPR blogger, who makes the point that being “good” isn’t zero sum (a situation where what is gained by one side or cause, is lost by another). If you’re concerned about the environment, you can both recycle cans and buy a more climate-friendly car. If you are passionate about children’s education, you can volunteer in the classroom and financially support literary projects. In most cases, doing good is not an either/or.

Which made me think a little more about the definition of “good”. To that writer it meant being vegan or vegetarian, in the belief that such a diet would improve animal welfare and environmental impact. Yet this is exactly where the conflict arises for me – if we were all vegan or vegetarian, what would happen to the sheep, the cow, the pig and the chicken?

I posed that question to a vegan on Twitter recently and he, in all sincerity, answered that we, as a vegan population, would care for the animals, but would not enslave or control them. Imagine the beautiful utopia where we all have time to calve a cow or throw some grain to feral pigs before we set off to work, expecting nothing in return. Or in a more realistic scenario, we’d have more meat than we knew what to do with simply through car accidents if we suddenly let loose the USA’s 87.7 million cattle (never mind the 62.1 million pigs, 5.2 millon sheep and 9+ billion chickens).

Anti-animal agriculture activists often purport that a cow can live for 20+ years in her “natural” state compared to a farmed animal – so being a data nerd, I did the maths*. Let’s assume that 1) cows first calve at two years of age and that 90% of cows (38.3 million of them in the US at present) have a calf every year**; 2) 85% of those calves survive (mortality would go up due to predation, assuming we wouldn’t shoot wolves, coyotes etc.); and 3) each cow or bull lives for 20 years. Admittedly that doesn’t account for the cattle that would die from starvation through lack of available grazing in 5, 10 or 20 years time, but being good vegans, we’d feed them, right?


Within five years we’d have 602 million cattle in the USA, within 20 years we’d have 3.7 billion – a 40-fold increase on our current national herd. That’s 40x more cattle belching methane, drinking water and producing waste, every single day, all as a result of our changing our diet in an attempt to reduce environmental impact.


It’s a nice, simplistic, oft-suggested argument that we shouldn’t eat meat or dairy products in order to save the planet, yet the conflict between veganism, animal welfare, and environmental impact is clear. Climate change will be solved by us turning vegan? Not unless we reconcile ourselves to killing animals without eating them.

*I’m British, and as such, cannot use the American term “math” as opposed to the British “maths”
**90% is the US average for cow-calf herds, in which few hormones or other reproductive aids are used

Scare Tactics – Why Do So Many “Public Health Experts” Promote Fear vs. Food?

pork chop 1How many of us are motivated by fear every single day? We’d like to think that we’re lucky enough to live in a society where we don’t feel afraid. In contrast to inhabitants of many war-torn regions we are unlikely to be shot as we drive to work; when we’re sick we have the luxury of modern medical attention (Obamacare not withstanding); and we can buy almost any food we fancy, at any time of year and feel safe in our food choices… or can we?

Food safety is an underlying assumption of dietary choice within the USA. We buy food based on three major factors: taste, price and nutrition. Safety isn’t a defining factor in choosing between the cheese quesadilla, the chef’s salad or the T-bone steak because most of us have rarely experienced significant negative health effects as a consequence of food choice (aside from the annual Thanksgiving food coma).

Yet so many food commentators, self-proclaimed experts (I read Michael Pollan therefore I am…) or bloggers appear to exist for the sole purpose of instilling consumer fear. Take this recent article in Salon – 9 reasons why we should fear eating steak – apparently it’s riddled with antibiotics, full of heavy metals and likely to give us all mad cow disease. I’m not going to turn this blog post into a thesis, so today will simply address one of the issues raised in the article, and examine the others in future posts.

I’m a scientist by training. In my career to date, I’ve learned that the more controversial the topic, the more important it is to base claims on sound data that is peer-reviewed and published in order to gain trust. If I present data that challenges perceptions, the first questions are always “Is this published in a peer-reviewed journal? Who funded it? How do I know it’s correct?” That is not to say that science is the only way to communicate – it’s not. Yet when making claims, it’s important to have science, or at least logical and biologically-feasible arguments, to back them up.

Yet, if we’re asking a question, even if it’s a loaded question that may instill fear or doubt into the reader, apparently scientific foundation is redundant. Could combining coffee and bagels in the same meal cause impotence? Is breast cancer caused by the rise in popularity of household pets sleeping on their owners’ beds? Is your tiredness really the result of too little sleep, or could it be all the chemicals that “big food” uses every single day? Hey, I’m just asking! Not making a claim, not saying that X + Y = Z, just throwing the thoughts out there. But having read them, how many of us now are thinking about our sexual performance, the potential ill-effects of Fluffy the cat, or how we really do seem to be more tired nowadays? (note that these really are examples that I have invented, I know of no scientific foundation for any of them).

Possibly the most damaging line in the Salon article contained no data. No scientific foundation. Just a question:

Could Ractopamine, added to the food supply in 1997 with little public awareness1, be contributing to skyrocketing rates of obesity and hyperactivity in children?

The FDA approved the use of Ractopamine in swine in 1999. It’s added to the diet of finishing pigs, improving feed efficiency and partitioning more feed nutrients into lean meat rather than fat (as demanded by today’s consumer). Effectively it allows us to produce more pork using fewer resources, but it has been linked to behavioral changes in pigs.

Most of us are aware that childhood obesity is a huge issue (pardon the pun). Many of us know children that have been diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So does Ractopamine cause these? It’s as likely as suggesting that eating alfalfa hay is going to make us lactate like dairy cows.

Maximum residue limits (MRLs) exist to make sure that there are no human physiological effects of veterinary drugs in meat, milk or eggs from treated animals. Regulatory bodies including CODEX assess potential human effects of a drug residue in animal products by multiplying the average residue level in food by the average intake. For example, if the residue level is 2 micrograms per 100 grams and the average person eats 300 grams of that food each day, the intake would be 6 micrograms. This intake is then compared to the acceptable daily intake (ADI) – the quantity that could be eaten every day for a lifetime without human health risk. This is usually the intake that would have a physiological effect, divided by a safety factor of one hundred. The MRL for Ractopamine in meat is 0.25 parts per million (0.00000025 grams per gram) with an ADI of 1.25 micrograms per kg of bodyweight per day.

If we examine the average pork intake for a 10 year old child in the USA (detailed calculation below) we see that they’d have to eat 13.3x more pork than the daily average to even equal the ADI – remember that’s the intake at which we would expect no physiological effect. For Ractopamine to have a physiological effect, the ADI would have to be increased one-hundred-fold. So the average 10-year old child would have to eat 1,330x more than the average child’s intake of pork, equivalent to 35 lbs of pork per day, every single day (the average adult only eats 48 lbs of pork in a year), for Ractopamine to have a health effect. My little nieces adore pork sausages, but they are pushed to eat two (approx 2 oz) in a day, let alone 35 lbs worth!

Still think that we can link Ractopamine use to obesity and ADHD? We can’t prove a negative, but it’s as tenuous a link as suggesting that we could drown in a single drop of water. So why are public health “experts” like Martha Rosenberg using fear tactics to scare us rather than extolling the positive contributions that high-quality animal proteins make to the human diet? Surely there’s no agenda there….is there?

1Note that all the data relating to this is freely-available on the internet – the “little public awareness” line is simply more fear-mongering.

Details of Ractopamine calculation

Let’s examine an average child’s intake. The average 10-year-old boy in the USA weighs 32 kg (71 lbs) and needs 34 grams of protein each day. In the USA, meat contributes about 40% of protein intake and about 21% of that comes from pork. That means, on average, a 10-year-old boy would eat about 12 g of pork per day (2.9 g protein).

If Taylor eats 12 g of pork each day at the maximum residue limit of Ractopamine (note that this would be unusually high), he’s consuming 12 g x 0.25/1,000,000 = 0.000003 g Ractopamine. His ADI = 1.25 micrograms x 32 kg bodyweight = 40 micrograms, or 0.00004 grams. That’s 13.3x higher than his intake. So a child could eat 13.3x more pork than average, every single day, and not be expected to have any physiological effects. For ingested Ractopamine to have a physiological effect he would have to eat 100 times that amount – 16 kg, or 35 lbs of pork per day. To put that into context, the average adult eats 48 lbs of pork in a year.