AVMA says Pew Commission report is flawed, unscientific

Response addresses commission's recommendations, advertisements
Published on August 15, 2009
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An AVMA report says recommendations by a prominent critic of industrial animal agriculture are unscientific and can actually threaten human health.

The document, available at www.avma.org/PEWresponse, questions the validity of the content and review process for a report published in 2008 by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production on the sustainability of the nation's food animal production systems. The AVMA contends the report is not consistent with the well-documented, science-based reports that the Association has come to expect from the Pew Commission.

The AVMA response is being widely distributed, and members of Congress are among those who will receive copies.

The AVMA document, "The American Veterinary Medical Association Response to the Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production," was a product of members of eight volunteer leadership councils and committees and three staff divisions. The Pew Commission report, "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America," was a two-year project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Dr. David R. Smith, a professor and the extension dairy and beef veterinarian for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said it is important for the AVMA to provide veterinarians' perspective on the Pew Commission's conclusions. He said authors of the Pew report have been trying to raise awareness about their recommendations, particularly among members of Congress involved in antimicrobial use legislation.

Dr. Smith is one of the AVMA volunteer leaders who read the Pew report, evaluated the commission's recommendations, and crafted the AVMA's response. The Pew report is directly related to his work with cattle producers on issues of food safety, responsible use of antimicrobials, animal well-being, and the public health impacts of cattle management.

Dr. Smith said the Pew report lacks insight into animal health issues, why antimicrobials are used in food-producing animals, and the regulation of those antimicrobials. He hopes the AVMA report provides people with a critical look at the Pew Commission's recommendations and "whether acting on those recommendations would make the world a better place."

"Largely, our conclusions were that the Pew report was a superficial look at animal agriculture, and the recommendations lacked deep understanding of the issues involved," Dr. Smith said.

The Pew Commission launched an advertising campaign this summer to influence decision makers in Washington, D.C., and it has included advertisements in the city's Metro stations that say antimicrobials are being misused in animal agriculture.

Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, AVMA CEO, wrote a letter to members of Congress that states the Pew advertisements are misleading and scientifically untrue. John W. Carlin, Pew Commission chairman, and Dr. Michael J. Blackwell, vice chairman, replied to Dr. DeHaven in a letter that defends the group's process and accuses the AVMA of failing to show leadership and of being inappropriately influenced by industry.

The AVMA counter-report focuses on the Pew Commission's recommendations related to antimicrobial resistance, environmental impact, and animal welfare. It asserts the Pew report contains flaws that lead to "dangerous and under-informed" recommendations by the Commission, and the Pew report romanticizes the lives of small farmers while vilifying larger producers, the AVMA executive summary states.

The AVMA report also alleges bias in inclusion or exclusion of technical expertise and technical reports, as well as the findings and suggestions of some participating academicians.

"We caution readers that we found disparities within the report, potentially due to the lack of incorporation of differing interpretations and conclusions offered by subject matter experts," the summary states.

In their letter, Carlin and Dr. Blackwell state the Pew Commission contacted representatives from the food animal industry to seek the names of experts, and they allege "the industry" provided names but discouraged those same experts from participating in the commission's work.

In a written statement submitted to the House Committee on Rules for a July 2009 hearing, Robert P. Martin, former executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, said the commission's findings clearly indicate practices in food animal production in the United States are not sustainable, are detrimental to rural communities, and are risking public, environmental, and food animal health. The hearing was related to the Preservation of Antimicrobials for Medical Treatment Act, which would ban nontherapeutic use of antimicrobials in food animals.

The bill is intended to reduce the risk that antimicrobial-resistant pathogens will proliferate and spread from food animals to humans. The AVMA is opposed to the bill on the grounds that it would lead to increases in animal disease and death without any assurance the resulting bans would improve human health.

The act does not allow for use of antimicrobials to prevent disease, and the AVMA does not see the ban as risk-based.

The AVMA report states it is imperative to base decisions on evidence and research grounded in the principles of scientific inquiry, while the Pew report is based on what is possible, rather than probable or actual.

The Pew Commission report included numerous recommendations for changes to the animal agriculture industry. Those include restricting antimicrobial use in food animals, researching public health and environmental effects of confined animal feeding operations, creating a combined food safety administration, improving farm animal waste disposal, improving animal husbandry, phasing out "inhumane" practices such as the use of gestation crates, more closely regulating animal housing and transportation conditions, increasing federally funded animal welfare research, and controlling the locations of industrial animal facilities.

The AVMA report does not dispute all the Pew Commission's recommendations, but it urges close scrutiny of those suggestions.

"While we believe there is value in some of the recommendations offered by the Pew Commission, we assert that many of the Commission's sub-points have significant shortfalls and lack in comprehensive idea development or in how the Commission would execute a new plan or program," the AVMA summary states.

Dr. Charles L. Hofacre, secretary-treasurer for the American Association of Avian Pathologists, said he did not find any new information when he read the Pew Commission report.

"All they did was centralize, in one report, all the reasons why we shouldn't be having large agribusiness," Dr. Hofacre said.

Dr. Hofacre said the report does not account for the needs of a growing global population, and dependence on the "idyllic" farms the committee seems to prescribe would greatly increase the amount of land needed for food production.

"If we were to turn all the chickens and pigs and cattle loose like they would like to see done, the cost would be extremely high, so people would have to pay a lot more for their food," Dr. Hofacre said. "And there would be shortages, because I don't know where you would raise all of those animals."

It is important that the AVMA respond to the Pew Commission report, Dr. Hofacre said, because of the need for a unified message for food animal practitioners.

"Food animal veterinarians need to respond with one voice, and AVMA is the best place for that to occur because they represent all of us," Dr. Hofacre said.