I’ve recently been collectingevidence that suggests that we could increase adoption rates by incorporating more group housing into shelters. In building my study, I’m now interested in what factors make cats less desirable at shelters so that potentially we could market less desirable cats by placing them in housing that will make them more desirable. Lepper et. al (2002) examined just that, in a study with over 4000 cats they examined multiple variables in order to determine certain predictors of adoption. They also examined dogs, but I’ll just be discussing the cats today. Check out the article for yourself if you are interested in the dog analysis.
It has been shown that there is a clear correlation with fearful behaviors and euthanasia (Gourkow and Fraser, 2006), therefore we should be doing everything we can to reduce fearful behaviors. I’ve suggested that when we are forced to make euthanasia decisions based on space, we need to take temperament into account to evaluate the potential for adoption.
Among other variables however, this study illuminates factors outside the control of behavior modification that may
influence adopt-ability. Comparing coat color, the authors chose to set tabby cats as the standard, and were able to determine that white, color point, and grey cats were the most likely to be adopted. Brown and Black were the least likely, a fact that any former shelter employee wouldn’t be surprised to hear.
Cats’ whose color or features could be attributed to a specific breed (such as Persians) were in high demand. This study found that coat length did not have an effect on adoption rates, but other researchers have found that more than half of adopters list coat length as an important factor in their selection. Interestingly, Siamese cats had no higher rate of adoption than other cats in the study.
To me, this information says that we could easily be selecting animals that are potentially less desirable, and placing them in the front or lobby areas of shelters in group settings, and keeping kittens and more desirable animals in less prominent housing. This simple management change could potentially increase adoption rates overall, and of course reduce euthanasia rates, the goal of any shelter.
Merry Lepper, Philip H. Kass, & Lynette A. Hart (2002). Prediction of Adoption Versus Euthanasia Among Dogs and Cats in a California Animal Shelter Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 5, 29-42 DOI: 10.1207/S15327604JAWS0501_3
As I continue my research trend concerning adoption rates in shelter cats, I came across this thesis by Nadine Gourkow, who is much more famous than I ever realized while reading the article. A brief google search of her name reveals that she is at the forefront of shelter cat welfare, and clearly I need to read more of her work as I continue to shape my study.
Her masters thesis explores the background for my intended study, in that it seeks to examine not only those factors inherent to the cats and their housing situation, but in what potential adopters are looking for. I’m hoping to collect as much of this information as possible to develop a hypothesis as to whether shelter layout could increase adoption rates by marketing less attractive cats in situations where they may be perceived as more adoptable.
I’ll admit firsthand that I didn’t read all 80 pages of the thesis, I was primarily interested in the methods, results, and discussion, as such I may have missed some of the finer points of Ms. Gourkow’s introduction. My personal interest was in the conclusions she drew based on the study design and how they could impact my own study design.
Four treatments were used in the study, which varied by complexity of cages (from a single animal in a barren cage to multiple cats in an enriched enclosure) and frequency/consistency of handling by shelter staff. I was primarily interested in the difference between singly housed cats compared with multiple cat housing.
I was pleased to see that this study only contained adult cats, as I’ve had concerns about the skewed adoption rate of kittens found more often in group housing in other studies. It was unfortunate that the handling effects could not be separated from the housing treatment in the analysis, however, it seems clear that either the consistent handling or cage enrichment had a large effect.
Where the cats in the single, barren, cage (standard) treatment experienced a 45% adoption rate, all of the other treatments had 74% or more adopted.
Did you read that? By adding a perch and hiding area (along with consistent handling) to a cat housed alone, they increased the number of cats adopted by 29%.
That’s an impressive change, however, I am more concerned with single vs. group housing, and thus was even more interested in what adopters listed as important criteria in their selection of a cat. The results clearly suggest that cats housed in groups have an advantage.
When it comes down to what adopters want to see in a cat, we can’t necessarily alter desirable traits such as “friendliness towards adopter,” “playfulness,” or “happy disposition.” But we can suppress other desirable traits by not providing opportunities for animals to exhibit them. The factors that I want to focus on are those that are enhanced or only provided through the use of group housing.
Being able to enter the cage with cats (74% of respondents)
Friendly with other cats (69%)
Able to view with other cats (52%)
Alternatively, while it may be essential for the cats’ mental well being, seeing perches and toys in cages was not very influential for adopters (38% or lower). These items may still play a large role in adoption rates due to other factors such as playfulness (86%) and reduction of fear behaviors (which dramatically increase euthanasia rates), but from a marketing and management standpoint, the easy change would be to house more cats in groups.
Arguments against housing cats in groups are primarily based on disease management. I recently read that roughly half of the cats in shelter environments become infected with contagious upper respiratory disease during their stay, and my own anecdotal experience supports that percentage. The article here, however, showed no difference in animals quarantined or euthanized due to illness between single and group treatments.
Another argument suggests that strange cats experience more stress when placed together, but Kessler and Turner along with Ms. Gourkow both reveal that space per cat plays a larger role in mitigating that stress, and that after a certain period stress levels become similar across all groups.
The picture that I’m beginning to piece together from these papers is that cats that are housed in groups are more desirable and consistently enjoy higher adoption rates. To use this information, I would hope that shelters would incorporate more group housing, and select animals for limited space based on adoptable attributes. I’ll continue exploring group housing’s influence on adoption rates, but now I’m interested in finding other traits that could make animals less desirable so that we can make placement decisions based on an animals marketable traits. The goal of this line of thinking being: if we can increase adoption rates for our less adoptable animals, can we reduce euthanasia rates overall?
Edit: I found the published version of the study featured in this thesis, and added the citation below.
Nadine Gourkow (2001). FACTORS AFFECTING THE WELFARE AND ADOPTION RATE OF CATS IN AN ANIMAL SHELTER University of British Columbia
N Gourkow, & D Fraser (2006). The effect of housing and handling practices on the welfare, behavior and selection of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) by adopters in an animal shelter Animal Welfare, 15, 371-377
This article is one of many that I’m currently reviewing to build the introduction for the original research I plan to complete this summer/fall. This is the first of several posts discussing shelter cats to come in the next several weeks.
This study by Kessler and Turner (1997) took a look at the stress levels of cats introduced to a shelter/boarding facility-type environment over the first two weeks of their stay, and cross-examined those housed alone, in pairs, and in groups. 45 homeless animals that had already been at the facilities for some time were selected as a control, and 140 animals staying for temporary boarding were observed for the first two weeks of their stay.
Overall, the authors were able to conclude that in a two week stay, two-thirds of the cats acclimated very well, and after two weeks their stress levels, while still higher, were very comparable to the control. They suggest that other options be explored by the owners of the other third, with a special emphasis on the 4% of the cats who were extremely stressed even after a two week stay.
I endorse this wholeheartedly as I often watched animals for owners as a job when I was much younger. While they may be given more brief human contact, working out a deal with a house-sitter or neighbor to take care of your pets while you are away can be much less stressful for them than if they are placed in an unfamiliar environment with strange people and animals. You reduce their risk of exposure to disease, and help some young lad save money for college (I did…though some of it bought movie popcorn).
The more surprising conclusion was that housing the cats singly, pairs, or groups appeared to have no influence on the stress levels of the animals. There appears to be a slightly faster decline in stress for group housed cats on the authors’ graph, however it isn’t addressed, and the difference is minimal.
The conclusions have merit, but I have several problems with the selection of control animals in this study, namely, the fact that they aren’t representative of the experimental group. The biggest problem is that only homeless shelter cats were used for the control, and only boarding cats for the experimental group, where either all homeless shelter cats or all boarding cats should have been included. The second large flaw I see is that all of the control animals were housed in groups of 6 to eight, effectively ruining any comparisons you may want to make when looking at the other housing situations. In a study named Stress and Adaptation of Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Housed Singly, in Pairs, and in Groups, you would think the control would use all of those situations.
The authors briefly mentioned the stress caused by cats that may be less social, or housed with familiar animals versus strangers, but were unable to control those factors with the way the data was collected and prepared. When it comes down to it, the control group just wasn’t…controlled. They were unable to fully examine how quickly single or pair cats acclimated to the boarding facility because you couldn’t compare them to a control cat in the same situation.
Kessler and Turner have another study (1999) examining stress levels of shelter cats in terms of animal density and cage size. Interestingly enough, they found that group density was “highly correlated with the stress level of animals housed in groups”, indicating that we should have seen some differences from the study above as well. That research was done two years after the 1997 study, so perhaps the authors also thought that those questions remained unanswered from the original study. I’ll be looking out for some newer research on the subject and may chime in on it again soon.
M R Kessler, & D C Turner (1997). Stress and Adaptation of Cats (Felis Silvestris Catus) Housed Singly, in Pairs and in Groups in Boarding Catteries Animal Welfare, 6, 243-254
M R Kessler, & D C Turner (1999). Effects of Density and Cage Size on Stress in Domestic Cats (Felis Silvestris Catus) Housed in Animal Shelters and Boarding Catteries Animal Welfare, 8, 259-267
Whew, sorry for the delay in posts, I’m still working on that personal project that shall be revealed soon. In lieu of a research post this week, I thought I’d share a resource I’m using.
This Guide to Cat Colors created by deviant artist majnouna is an extremely detailed and easy to read chart describing the coloration terms and standards of the Cat Fancier’s Association. I’m using it to create standards for color that I’m using as one of the variables for my proposed research I’m hoping to get going by the end of this month. You can even buy it as a poster!
Regular posting to resume next week, thank you for your patience!
Here’s the final portion of my paper: Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare?
If you’ve missed the other posts, you can check out part 1, part 2, or read the entire paper here.
Conflict Between the Organic Approach and Welfare Ideals
Despite measures taken to promote prevention, a certain amount of disease is permissible in a healthy ecosystem and the restrictions placed on organic producers by both their certification requirements and ethos can create dilemma’s that could potentially harm animals. Several classic examples of species specific situations have been examined where the animal welfare approach taken by organic producers can be considered detrimental to the animal.
It should be noted that while there is evidence that there is a reluctance to use prohibited medications and chemicals to treat disease on organic farms (Vaarst and Bennedsgaard, 2001), both the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and IFOAM standards explicitly state that organic livestock producers must not withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve that animals organic status (IFOAM, 2005; National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a; Riddle, 2008, 2012).
Management of mastitis in organic dairies is a commonly discussed example of when health of the individual and a reluctance to accept the financial loss associated with antibiotic use can potentially harm the animal. Herd health, in general, has not been shown to be significantly different between organic and conventional dairy herds, and some data suggests that the incidence of disease may actually be lower in organic herds, though the reasons for this are unknown (Lund and Algers, 2003; Lund, 2006). Interestingly, the ban on antibiotics for clinical use is more of a concern within U.S. boarders, as the majority of certification standards in the European Union allow antibiotic use to treat clinical disease without jeopardizing the organic status of the animal (Ruegg, 2009). However, the strict FDA guidelines for organic milk production not only prohibit the use of antibiotics in organic livestock, but do not allow the use of any compounds with an antimicrobial effect that are not approved by the FDA for organic production (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a). Currently, there are zero antimicrobials approved for use in organic animals (Ruegg, 2009). This leaves organic dairy producers extremely limited in their options for treatment when faced with a cow that has mastitis. With few options available, Zwald et al. (2004) were able to find that farmers who switched to organic production began to seek information on treatments from other organic farmers as opposed to veterinarians. This trend is not seen in countries where antibiotic options are available to organic dairy farmers (Hamilton et al., 2006).
So what options are available to organic dairy producers in the U.S.? Once again, prevention is key, but research has shown that rates of mastitis are similar between organic and conventional dairy operations (Lund and Algers, 2003; Lund, 2006). This indicates that treatment must be part of a management plan, even if the organic ethos prevents any attempts to interfere with natural processes through antimicrobial intervention. Certain drugs are available for use on the CFR’s approved substances list with increased withdrawal times to maintain the high standards expected in organic milk production (Riddle, 2008; National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a). These drugs include certain anti-inflammatory drugs that would be useful in treating fever and inflammation associated with mastitis. Beyond pharmaceuticals, therapeutic care including frequent milking is a recognized way to discourage bacterial growth within the affected quarters. Combined with approved anti-inflammatory drugs, frequent milking and supportive care constitutes a common mastitis treatment on organic dairies in the United States (Ruegg, 2009).
Many organic farmers will also attempt to utilize complementary and alternative medicines; however, almost all of the products available have not been evaluated in peer reviewed studies for efficacy. Immunoboost, a USDA licensed immune stimulant sold in the U.S., has been evaluated but has not shown to have any significant effect on the treatment of mastitis (Ruegg, 2009). Other various remedies including peppermint, aloe, and garlic have been utilized by organic farmers as intramammary treatments, however the efficacy of these options is doubted, and their use is prohibited by the FDA (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a). It appears that without recovery using simple supportive care, any medical intervention necessary to prevent unnecessary pain or distress for non-responsive mastitis cases will result in the loss of a producing animal for that organic operation. This creates a potential welfare risk, as the USDA organic requirements do not specify a point when prohibited treatments must be used, and the decision to discontinue organic treatment resides solely with the farmer.
Poultry producers face a distinctive management change when converting to organic as free choice medicated feeds containing antibiotics are commonly used to manage disease and promote growth (Love et al., 2010). Organic poultry is also currently under increased pressure from consumers (Love et al., 2012) to provide a safe and antibiotic free product, which could indicate an increased reluctance to treat conditions using pharmaceuticals. Following the prevention management strategy, organic poultry producers may use a variety of feed supplements including probiotics, prebiotics, organic acids, and plant extracts that have had minimal and sometimes contradictory efficacy reviews (Griggs and Jacob, 2005). Once again, treatment needs to be a key part of the management strategy of the organic producer, and the increased public scrutiny over medication use in poultry has the potential to encourage famers to withhold medication as has been shown in other species (Lund, 2006).
One of the most contested animal welfare debates surrounding organic poultry is regarding the space required by the USDA regulations to remain organic (Kijlstra and Eijck, 2006). While the law only requires year-round access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight (appropriate for the species, age, and climate) (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a); organic farmers have adopted the term “free-range”, which unfortunately like the word “natural,” has no legal meaning. Nonetheless, open access to runs follows the third of Frasier et al.’s welfare ideals in allowing chickens to exhibit natural behaviors and thus have better welfare. The trade-off, however, is that while we have defined the major focus of disease management in organic operations as prevention based, free ranging chickens are more susceptible to predation, outbreaks of cannibalism, parasite exposure, coccidiosis and ascarid infections, and interactions with wild fowl that transmit dangerous diseases such as avian influenza (Verhoog et al., 2004; Kijlstra and Eijck, 2006; Lund, 2006). In order to keep with organic standards, all of these animals must continue to have access to the outdoors, and prohibited pharmaceuticals cannot be fed to treat outbreaks of disease or treat the higher rate of parasites that are found on organic operations (Lund, 2003). Clearly, should there be an outbreak of disease or cannibalism, an ethical dilemma is created between the first two ideals concerning the physical and mental needs of the animal, and the third to maintain natural conditions.
The various dilemmas discussed indicate that organic producers face additional pressure, both financially and in public relations, to avoid the use of treatments that would compromise the organic status of that animal. However, prioritizing animal welfare to include aspects beyond the scope of the clinical health of individual animals can potentially change the way welfare is perceived by conventional farmers and the general public. If an ecocentric rather than an individualistic perspective is considered, and positive experiences can be provided for the animal by indulging its natural behaviors and ecological niche, perhaps some stress events like occasional infections are an acceptable trade-off. Given that a higher incidence of disease has not been found, and that organic producers are required by law not to restrict care to maintain an organic status, it can be determined that organic livestock production does not encourage decisions that negatively impact animal welfare. However, it is recommended U.S. should adopt the EU policy of allowing antibiotics to be used in clinical cases without removing the organic status of that animal. With adequately increased withdrawal times in place to reflect the strict requirements that define organic products and enough consumer education, the organic market should recognize and accept the benefits of this policy change. Livestock would benefit by receiving more aggressive medical intervention as financial pressure not to treat animals could be alleviated as it has been in the EU (Ruegg, 2009), and having prescription antibiotics available as a treatment option could encourage more contact with veterinarians instead of neighbors to discuss animal health. Additional research is needed to support this position that could come from data determining if financial and public pressure are enough to encourage farmers to withhold treatments. In that case, additional actions such as stricter enforcement of the law may be necessary to promote a higher standard of care for organic animals.
What do you think? Does my assessment compare with your personal observations or more recent research? Do you think there are conditions in which antibiotics should be permitted while maintaining the organic standard?
Here’s the second portion of my paper: Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare?
You can find part 1 here, or read the entire paper here.
Welfare from an Ecocentric Perspective
Animal welfare has always been and remains to be an important goal in organic operations (Riddle, 2005; IFOAM, 2005); however, organic producers are still questioned on the welfare status of their animals because of their organic certification. Among the many definitions intended to quantify animal welfare, Frasier et al. (1997, p.187) provide three basic animal welfare ideals:
1. The animal should feel well, corresponding to the concepts of experience, feeling, interest, and preference.
2. The animal should function well, corresponding to the concepts of need and clinical health.
3. The animal should lead a natural life through the development and exercise of its natural adaptations, corresponding to the concept of the “innate nature” of the animal.
In general, livestock in conventional settings have their welfare measured using the first two ideals, with the most emphasis placed on the second. Producers are first and foremost concerned with the prevention of disease that could hurt production or cause unnecessary pain; humane slaughter laws are designed to prevent excess excitement and discomfort (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012b), and welfare audits for slaughter facilities are designed to reduce animal stress prior to slaughter (Grandin and Johnson, 2006). Using these criteria, it becomes clear how viewing welfare through the first two of Frasier’s ideals might suggest organically raised animals could have poorer welfare. It has been shown that organic farms have a higher rate of parasite-related disease (Lund and Algers, 2003), and the use of veterinary drugs is strongly suggested to be a last resort after alternative methods have been exhausted (IFOAM, 2005). There is also a financial incentive, as once antibiotics have been given to an animal, that animal cannot return to organic production (Riddle, 2008; National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a).
Through the naturalistic perspective however, welfare for organic producers can depend much less on the first two ideals, and more weight is placed on the third. This viewpoint changes the significance of the risks involved in many organic practices, such as free range housing, as both organic producers and consumers emphasize the third ideal as a priority (Alroe et al., 2001; Lund, 2006). Additionally, the ecocentric perspective further lowers the emphasis on the first two, as disease and parasites are both considered healthy parts of a larger ecosystem, and the health of the ecosystem is crucial to the health of the herd and the sustainability of the farm. This idea of looking past the individual is what causes dispute when quantifying animal welfare on the organic farm. Most producers, veterinarians, USDA inspectors, and animal owners evaluate animal welfare at the level of the individual, whereas the ecocentric organic producers are more likely to evaluate welfare at the level of the flock/herd, within the herd’s role in the overall ecosystem. At this level, a few animals in poor health are acceptable in a natural ecosystem where small amounts of disease are permissible. The ecocentric view disallows an attempt to alter a healthy system determined by nature by eradicating this small population.
Because animal welfare may be determined using more qualitative criteria in an organic operation, how do organic producers react to poor welfare or illnesses of individual animals? Organic producers hold the health of their animals high in their priorities (IFOAM, 2005; Riddle 2005), so they must be able to maintain a standard of herd health not only for the benefit of their animals, but to keep production high. As part of the naturalness or ecocentric ethos, organic producers believe that farmers should not try to take control of the environment, as conventional techniques do, but work hand in hand with nature. Thus, any method used to completely eradicate disease through the use of chemicals or medications does not promote a sustainable ecosystem, as it reveals an attempt to control the environment rather than work to bring the ecosystem back into balance (Verhoog et al., 2003). Therefore, prevention becomes key, and the U.S. organic requirements mandate preventative practices that emphasize working with nature such as selection of species and type of livestock that are appropriate to the site and resistant to prevalent disease, provision of a sufficient organic feed ration, and the use of appropriate housing, pasture management, and sanitation protocol to minimize the occurrence of pathogens (Riddle, 2008).
For my senior ethics class, I chose to write about an issue everyone has an opinion on, from granola folks at the co-op telling me to watch Food Inc. to farmers complaining about the outbreak of upper respiratory disease from those untreated organic herds sneezing over the fence. I actually ended up changing my own views quite a bit following the extensive research I did, and I really enjoyed writing the paper. I wanted to evaluate the claims often made to me by professors in my land grant school (Oregon State) about the misleading advertising and hidden evils of organic production, and I wanted to see if there was anything to back up the fanaticism and devotion sometimes projected by organic devotees. This paper is NOT an exhaustive review of the literature, and I am not qualified to make any official judgement, and is simply meant to be a personal commentary from a recent graduate.
So rather than sit here blathering, the first portion is below, and you can read the full paper here.
Few agricultural debates come close to generating the same passionate and heated responses that organic farming seems to elicit. The discussion surpasses the interests of producers with conflicting ideologies to be hotly debated by assertive consumers as well; people who highlight the paradox created by their interest in the safe and responsible production of their food, while avoiding all involvement in its creation. The originally proposed Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 received nearly 300,000 comments on the proposed requirements, more than any other piece of legislation in history (Vos, 2000). Clearly this indicated that the role organic farming played in food production was extremely important to U.S. citizens then, and continues to be a relevant topic as organic operations have grown by 40-50% every five years since 1992 (USDA, 2010).
The general public also has a strong interest in the way animals are managed, especially when management techniques play a role in the health or well-being of the animals prior to their use for meat, milk, or eggs. Humane management is often brought up when discussing the merits or flaws of organic operations, and is extremely important to producers due to the important role animal welfare plays when consumers make purchasing decisions. Prickett et al. (2010) found through the use of a telephone survey that 49% of consumers consider the well-being of farm animals when purchasing meat, and 83% of consumers disagree that lower prices are more important than the well-being of the animals used. These numbers become critical when organic producers need to justify the increased cost of their products and conventional producers are forced to avoid the alternate impression that their animals are treated poorly.
Marketing pressure placed on both groups leads to a vicious back and forth of both valid questions and vague accusations, among which is the suggestion that organic farms can act as reservoirs of disease (Kijlstra and Eijck, 2006). One mechanism for this accusation could be the avoidance of chemical or synthetic intervention for pest control and treatment of disease. This paper seeks to evaluate organic farming ideologies and legal constraints that create ethical dilemmas surrounding animal welfare, and determine whether organic management encourages decisions that are detrimental to the animals involved.
Animal Welfare and the Organic Movement
Early organic movements were created with the goal that a more sustainable and environmentally friendly farming system could be created that would benefit not only farmers and consumers of organic products, but also the animals within this system (Lund, 2006). These ideals have persevered and are a common talking point in promotional materials that market organically raised animals as drug and chemical free, and much closer to a “natural” condition (Riddle, 2005). This concept of “natural” is commonly used to differentiate organically produced animal products from conventional ones.
Utilizing the word “natural” creates an issue of perception; while the public widely accepts “natural” as a product descriptor, the word itself has no published legal definition when used in food advertising or packaging in the U.S. However, consumers have been shown to associate descriptions of “naturalness” not only with animal welfare but sustainability and care for the environment (Verhoog et al., 2003). While this may imply a scheme to sway consumer loyalty, the word is widely accepted by organic producers as an accurate descriptor to differentiate organic methods from conventional. While “natural” can have broad definitions like including the entire universe or everything untouched by man (thus either removing agriculture or providing no distinctions in practice), Verhoog et al. (2004) were able to show that organic producers feel organic can be classified as more natural than conventional agriculture as its aim is to be harmoniously integrated into nature. In this way nature is seen as a teacher or model for sustainable and humane agriculture. This ethos pushes organic farmers into an ecocentric approach when making management decisions. From this perspective, we begin to see how organic farmers may view welfare differently than conventional farmers or veterinarians.
Hey all, taking a quick break from blogging as I’m busy with a personal research project I’ll report here on ASR soon, but I wanted to add a quick post for anyone subscribing to RSS or wondering if I’m still alive.
This article on ScienceDaily details a study going on at the University of Georgia, in which they’re recording flock vocalizations to find distinct patterns that can be associated with temperature levels, ammonia concentrations, and other detrimental environmental factors. This has possible implications not only for the welfare of the birds but for the efficiency of the operation.One example of a financial incentive that the article provided is that current ammonia detectors are expensive and short-lived, and if a computer instead could “listen” to the flock and identify specific vocalization changes related to ammonia levels those detectors could be made obsolete.
It’s a cool article, and an awesome example of how agriculture continues to keep up with technology. Check it out and I’ll be back to regular posting as soon as my other personal project is on it’s way!
Following my recent post where I examined an article from Johns Hopkins that found multiple contaminants in commercial feather meal (including fluoroquinolones, a class of antibiotics that have been banned from use in poultry since 2005), I was honored to be contacted by one of the Authors, Dr. David Love. Dr. Love offered to continue the discussion with me, and was happy to answer my questions regarding the study, the media frenzy it has inspired, and some of the goals of the research conducted at the Center for a Livable Future. I immediately jumped at the chance, and was able to speak with him on the phone earlier this week.
As those who read the post last week have seen, my primary concern with the study was not to do with it’s results or conclusion, but in how the press release was worded. He didn’t feel that it was as misrepresentative as I initially interpreted it, and we quickly moved on discussing just why this article was picked up so quickly.
“I’m not sure how much more clear it could be, we specifically said feather meal, and the title of the study says ‘feather meal, a previously unrecognized route for reentry into the food supply’…I think on the whole we were careful, I don’t think we can come out of this paper with twelve samples and make sweeping generalizations, it’s important to point out that our big recommendation of the study in the last line was that more research should be done…It’s really at the intersection of the media and what they’re interested in, the consumer and what their interests are, and then our story as the authors. Consumers are so interested in what’s going on with their food. We say we did a study on chicken, there’s energy there, and if that’s what they want to talk about, it tells me that we need more transparency in packaging, labeling, and more consumer education. “
I agree, everyone is interested in what they eat, and he makes a great point that we shouldn’t ignore that interest as scientists or producers as it reflects consumer demand. Another point I wanted clarification on was the statement that self-regulation and our current FDA guidelines aren’t sufficient to keep contaminants out of food.
“From the looks of the latest FDA Guidance there’s a lot of strong language, but no teeth in the language. I think for the draft guidance for 213 we’re hopeful, as there will be a larger role for veterinarians in prescribing antibiotics. As for self regulation, I would be more willing to support it if there was more transparency. Many other countries go out of their way to report use, and we in the U.S. have trouble dividing up which antibiotics are used for growth promotion, prophylaxis, and therapy. It would be hard to go about but if we could get that, and reduce or cut growth promotion uses, we would be able to actually measure progress on how we’re reducing antibiotic use in animals.”
He made a very strong point, and following publishing my post last week I came upon a commentary published by the authors discussing the issue created by unintentional overuse of antibiotics in feed. The article actually provided many of the citations supporting their arguments that I mockingly asked for last week, and I encourage anyone interested to check out the data behind the conclusions. In wrapping up our discussion, I asked where the authors planned to go next with follow-up research.
“A lot of people want to know. Well we found this stuff in feathers, now lets look at meat, at the consumer level with what you buy at the grocery store.”
A logical next step, and one that I’m sure will have even more interest than the findings from feather meal.
Out of our discussion, I discovered a different perspective of the research that I believe was reflected in the discussion, but was completely missed by the media and myself. While the source of the contaminants is obviously a big question, that wasn’t the purpose of the study. The authors were examining feather meal as a route to antibiotic introduction that could have implications in terms of creation of AB-resistant bacteria. Regardless of how it got there (like through contaminated groundwater, as I suggested), a small percentage of chicken producers use it as a feed supplement, thus introducing fluoroquinolones into our food supply through a previously unknown method, and thus not subject to withdrawal times that prevent meat contamination. Further exploration of this research goal will probably concern testing the meat of chickens being fed feather meal for the presence of fluoroquinolones, and seeing if they do allow a sufficient amount to reenter the food supply that may warrant a withdrawal period.
In reflecting on my first post on the subject, I believe that my own response to the press release provided an excellent example of the point I was making. As this case and my interpretation of it reveal, it’s extremely easy to think that your statements were clear and representative of the science at the time, but under outside scrutiny can still be misinterpreted whether in a press release or a blog post. I’m sure I’ll remember this article when I get to publish my first paper, and take a good, hard look at the press release before approving it.
I want to sincerely thank Dr. David Love for taking the time to speak with me about his research, food safety, and agriculture research in general. I greatly enjoyed our discussion and hope that I get to work with him again. Quotes used in this post are transcribed from my notes I took during our discussion, and are used with his prior review and permission.
If you are still interested in this topic I encourage you to read all you can about it, there’s no end to the depth of the science and social issues involved. I’ve linked to the original article several times, but you can also read the supplementary material here that includes some of the anecdotal evidence in support of the presence of some of the contaminants. You can also read the National Chicken Council’s response to the NY times opinion piece that first made this research so popular. Finally, here’s some research from Chile correlating concentrations of enrofloxacin (a fluoroquinolone) in feathers with withdrawal times in chickens treated with the drug.
Please feel free to leave comments on how you feel about the research, the media presentation, and my own interpretation! I know for a fact all you people from ResearchBlogging.org have opinions, I read them all the time!
Love, D., Davis, M., Bassett, A., Gunther, A., & Nachman, K. (2010). Dose Imprecision and Resistance: Free-Choice Medicated Feeds in Industrial Food Animal Production in the United States Environmental Health Perspectives, 119 (3), 279-283 DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1002625
Love, D., Halden, R., Davis, M., & Nachman, K. (2012). Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) Environmental Science & Technology, 46 (7), 3795-3802 DOI: 10.1021/es203970e
San Martín B, Cornejo J, Iragüen D, Hidalgo H, & Anadón A (2007). Depletion study of enrofloxacin and its metabolite ciprofloxacin in edible tissues and feathers of white leghorn hens by liquid chromatography coupled with tandem mass spectrometry. Journal of food protection, 70 (8), 1952-7 PMID: 17803156
An article recently published in Environmental Science and Technology details a study conducted at Johns Hopkins where when examining samples of commercially available feather meal (used as a protein supplement feed or fertilizer) they found trace amounts of fluoroquinolones, a class of antibiotics that have been banned for use in animal feed for 6 years. This is an interesting find, and definitely warrants further research before any broad sweeping conclusions can be made. You know…unless you publish a press release condemning the entire industry for breaking the law and trying to kill us all (question, if all the chicken consumers are dead, how does that lead to higher profits?).
The article itself is very well done. The authors collected samples of feather meal from several states and Canada and tested them for various pharmaceuticals. They also autoclaved the samples to see how the heating processes involved in creation of the product affected degradation/digestion of any of the compounds, and exposed E. Coli cultures to the meal to see if the presence of one or more of the compounds was enough to select for antibiotic resistant populations (they were).
The researchers examined each of the compounds of interest and proposed mechanisms for their presence. Some of them are used at various levels legally within the industry, and the presence of many others (such as caffeine) can be explained by their introduction through various feedstuffs (such as coffee pulp and green tea powder) (Love et al., 2012).
Obviously of most interest to the researchers were the levels of fluoroquinolones, and they hesitantly proposed possible mechanisms for their introduction into feather meal.
“Fluoroquinolones (enrofloxacin, norofloxacin, or ofloxacin) were detected in 6 of 10 U.S. samples, which was not expected because fluoroquinolone use in U.S. poultry production has been banned since 2005. These findings may suggest that the ban is not being adequately enforced or that other pathways, for example, through use of commodity feed products from livestock industries not covered by the ban, may inadvertently contaminate poultry feed with fluoroquinolones…To better interpret our findings, corroborating evidence in the form of antimicrobial usage practices and dosing amounts would be needed.” (Love et al., 2012)
Clearly we’re not ruling out the possibility of these antibiotics being fed, but there is no cause and effect relationship here. They also make note that feather’s contain antibiotics in higher concentrations than meat or other tissues, even after legally defined withdrawal times to remove them from edible tissue. The conclusions here are justly cautious, and place no blame or accusations upon the industry.
The other interesting find was that the feather meal tested would select for antibiotic resistant strains of E. Coli when exposed to cultures. However, this was only testable with autoclaved samples of the meal. And did we mention that the only samples tested here were sourced from China (who according to the article use many more antibiotics than we do in poultry production)?
“These initial results suggest, but cannot prove, that the inhibiting substance may be an antibiotic/bacteriostatic. Autoclaving may have attenuated the quantity and bioavailability of antimicrobial drugs originally present.” (Love et al., 2012)
Again, a cautious observation and hardly conclusive. Comparisons were made from standard cultures exposed to low levels of relevant antibiotics to see if the same strains were removed, but this data cannot be correctly compared as the feather meal was not controlled enough to isolate those compounds. The authors finish their discussion with an appreciation for the novel information they found and an invitation for others to verify, replicate, and build upon their results.
“We have previously described risks related to administration of medicated feed to food animals, which may promote selection for antimicrobial resistance. The presence of antimicrobials in feather meal, as determined in this study, is a previously unrecognized source of these drugs in animal feed. Because this is the first study of PPCPs in feather meal, we invite independent verification of our results by others. More work is needed to determine whether the detected levels of PPCPs in feather meal have an impact on the quality of food animal products and the safety of consumers.” (Love et al., 2012)
And there we have it, an exciting new study that presents a lot of questions to be used for follow-up research. So we’ll publish it and make sure to put out a press release so that not only those keeping up with the journals can read and understand what we’re currently researching.
Well…it seems like the authors like to be scientific when submitting journal articles, but prefer big headlines and sensationalizing when trying to popularize their research. In their official press release, these researchers quickly turn from cautious scientists to industry whistleblowers.
“The discovery of certain antibiotics in feather meal strongly suggests the continued use of these drugs, despite the ban put in place in 2005 by the FDA…The public health community has long been frustrated with the unwillingness of FDA to effectively address what antibiotics are fed to food animals.” – David Love, PhD
Comments from Keeve Nachman, PhD, show a level of conviction that I had no idea he possessed in the original article.
“In recent years, we’ve seen the rate of fluoroquinolone resistance slow, but not drop…With such a ban, you would expect a decline in resistance to these drugs. The continued use of fluoroquinolones and unintended antibiotic contamination of poultry feed may help explain why high rates of fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter continue to be found on commercial poultry meat products over half a decade after the ban.” (I guess we know for sure they’re still being used in the US, I must have missed that citation in your introduction)
“A high enough concentration was found in one of the samples to select for bacteria that are resistant to drugs important to treat infections in humans” (Note: the concentration comment is true, however, your study stated that there was not controlled enough testing to prove that any specific compound present caused the bacterial selection)
“We strongly believe that the FDA should monitor what drugs are going into animal feed…Based on what we’ve learned, I’m concerned that the new FDA guidance documents, which call for voluntary action from industry, will be ineffectual. By looking into feather meal, and uncovering a drug banned nearly 6 years ago, we have very little confidence that the food animal production industry can be left to regulate itself.”
Wow, this press release from the actual authors of the article must be legit, after all, they wrote it, and they wouldn’t write/act completely differently so as to both dangle a carrot to the media and still get their research published in a peer-reviewed journal right?
Well, the press release diditsjob, and Nachman can be found interviewing left and right about how he was “floored” by the result, and how that the more he learns, “the more [he is] drawn to Organic”. There’s a severe lack of integrity here, and the misrepresentation of your data and analysis to cater to anti-big-Ag sentiments is irresponsible and unethical.
So, future scientific corespondents for the Daily Mail aside, what are some other proposed mechanisms for the presence of these banned antibiotics? After all, I’m suggesting that they aren’t being fed routinely as the authors apparently really believe. Let me rephrase that, I’m not ignoring multiple unproven mechanisms for the purpose of shock science.
I spoke with James Hermes PhD, a professor and Poultry Science Extension Specialist here at Oregon State University, about the article. He had obviously heard of it and shared with me some discussions he had had with his colleagues. Their proposed mechanism for the introduction of the pharmaceuticals was through groundwater.
“Feather meal is boiled at the rendering plant, it’s processed with a lot of water, so anything in the groundwater can end up in the meal…Just recently near [Corvallis] they did some testing and found nearly everything we use at home. For years they told us to flush our excess medications…It’s always been there, we’ve just only recently been able to look at such small concentrations 1 parts per billion, trillion, or even possibly quadrillion.” – James Hermes, PhD
So in addition to whatever chickens could be exposed to via drinking the water and concentrating pollutants in their feathers, additional water and pollutants are introduced during the rendering of the product. He encouraged me to find some research showing that ground water contains any and all of the things discovered in the feather meal, and I found it.
So is this a possible mechanism for the introduction of these contaminants? I suggest the authors of the study follow their own advice in the article and explore this mechanism. Perhaps see if the levels of the pharmaceuticals change in the feathers both prior to and after rendering/boiling, explore if they are present in organically produced feather meal, and find out if there are still large concentrations of fluoroquinolones in the groundwater of the areas processing feather meal. And hey, if they want to keep on trucking with scare tactics, I think finding this stuff in the water supply will be much more frightening to the public given that we can’t buy organic water (don’t start).
Finally, in evaluating consumer exposure to the present antibiotics in feather meal, we should keep in mind the steps necessary in the shortest route to the consumer. First, there have to be high concentrations of antibiotics in feather meal; second, that feather meal must be fed to an animal used for food, third; those antibiotics must be retained and remain active until slaughter of that animal at a high enough concentration; fourth, they have to survive gastric juices and be absorbed into the small intestine of the person eating the meat/milk. Nevermind that along the way, the authors of the relevant study note that at any point the vector for the antibiotics is heated most of them will degrade.
Obviously, if the feather meal is used as fertilizer instead of a by product feed, then there are a few more steps that need to take place to get those pollutants onto the plate.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish this compelling article on how those fat cats selling nautral almond extract are trying to murder me .
D.C. Love, R.U. Halden, M.F. Davis, & K.E. Nachman (2012). Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) Environmental Science and Technology, 46, 3795-3802
Kolpin, D., Furlong, E., Meyer, M., Thurman, E., Zaugg, S., Barber, L., & Buxton, H. (2002). Pharmaceuticals, Hormones, and Other Organic Wastewater Contaminants in U.S. Streams, 1999−2000: A National Reconnaissance Environmental Science & Technology, 36 (6), 1202-1211 DOI: 10.1021/es011055j
Update: following this post I had a chance to talk with one of the Authors of the article, read about our discussion here.