Will Gilmer (left) listens as Keith Ayoob talks about his concerns with food safety and antibiotics in food-producing animals. The two were part of a panel discussion and media briefing sponsored by the International Food Information Council in Chicago. The panel also included Randall Singer, a veterinarian and associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Gilmer is a dairy farmer from Sulligent, Ala. Ayoob is associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
Will Gilmer (left) listens as Keith Ayoob talks about his concerns with food safety and antibiotics in food-producing animals. The two were part of a panel discussion and media briefing sponsored by the International Food Information Council in Chicago. The panel also included Randall Singer, a veterinarian and associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Gilmer is a dairy farmer from Sulligent, Ala. Ayoob is associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

CHICAGO — For pediatrician Keith Ayoob, what is going on in his patients’ kitchens is more of a source of concern than what those same patients are buying at the grocery store for their kids to eat.

“Once the consumer buys it, all bets are off,” he said.

The “outdoor food” months of summer, when barbecues, cookouts and picnics abound, are a particular source of concern for the associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

“Especially in the summer months when it’s very warm and my patients will tell me about their social activities, I find out a lot about their lifestyles. A lot of them cook food early in the day, like noontime and that way, it is out all afternoon, not just at barbecues or Fourth of July celebrations, but this is their normal routine. ‘I cook early in the morning.’ I hear that constantly. That concerns me a lot more than how food is produced up to the time that people buy it. To me, the lack of inspection and lack of oversight over what consumers do is a lot more of a concern,” Ayoob said.

He was one of three panelists for a journalist luncheon and media briefing hosted at the Capital Grille in Chicago by the International Food Information Council Foundation. The briefing was titled “Antibiotics in Food Producing Animals: Who’s At Risk? Who Benefits?”

Ayoob was joined on the panel by Will Gilmer, an Alabama dairy farmer and social media presence who also is one of the Faces of Farming and Ranching of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. The third panelist, Randy Singer, a veterinarian and associate professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Minnesota, joined the briefing remotely from his office in Minnesota.

The goal of the briefing was to provide journalists of various backgrounds information from three different perspectives and to get questions answered.

Ayoob said he is far more concerned about how his patients and their families handle and prepare food than what’s in that food itself. When it comes to antibiotic use, he said that human misuse of antibiotics could present more of an issue for antibiotic resistance than animal use.

“I have significant concerns about how my patients use antibiotics with their own children, and I do see that a lot,” he said.

Ayoob noted that one common problem is that parents do not continue a course of treatment for the prescribed length of time, often stopping an antibiotic if a child seems to be feeling better.

“That is the worst thing they can do, and I get more concerned with how people deal with antibiotics with their kids than I do about how farmers do it,” said Ayoob, adding that while prescriptions are regulated, how that patient uses the medicine at home isn’t. “Consumers aren’t regulated. On the farm, it’s regulated. That makes me a little more comfortable.”

Gilmer sought to dispel the notions of antibiotics from treated animals being in the milk that consumers purchase.

He said that the goal of livestock producers is to keep animals healthy to prevent an illness that requires antibiotic treatment.

“Before you start talking about antibiotics or any other medication, what you’re looking at is what can I do on my operation to give my animals the best chance of being healthy,” he said.

Gilmer said the farm must follow a prescribed holding period for both milk and meat from treated animals. Cows being treated are marked with high-visibility leg bands so they can be segregated and milked separately.

“She is not milked into the system along with the other cows,” said Gilmer, who said the unusable milk is used as fertilizer.

In addition, milk goes through a testing process before it enters a processing plant.

“If there’s any issues found with that milk, it is discarded from the truck before it enters the plant,” Gilmer said.

He emphasized that farmers have a substantial financial interest in keeping cows healthy and their milk free from antibiotics.

“Should a load of bad milk leave our farm that has some antibiotic in it or some other flag in it, we become financially liable for every amount of milk that was in that truck,” he said.

Ayoob, who said his grandfather was a dairy farmer, agreed that dairy farmers have multiple incentives for keeping animals healthy and free from antibiotics.

“I remember my grandfather’s stories, ‘You treat those girls really, really well or they’ll shut down. You have to be really, really nice to the animals.’ So the idea that animals have to be well cared for? Yes. It’s not only good for the animals, it’s good for business, as well,” he said.

Ayoob said that eating organic meat and drinking organic milk isn’t necessarily a protection against foodborne illness. He also noted that for many of his patients, the much higher immediate financial cost of organic milk and meat puts those product out of reach.

“I don’t eat organic meat. I’m not against it, but I have a budget, too, and do I feel more comfortable eating organic meat? Bacteria levels can actually be higher in organic meat, so you still have to cook it and handle it properly — not just cook it, but also keep it properly to insure safety,” he said.

Ayoob also pointed to the fact that the food supply has never been sterile.

“The idea of bacteria in our food supply is not new. Our food supply is not sterile, and it never was. It wasn’t sterile when your grandmother was around. The apples that she baked into an apple pie were not sterile,” he said.

Gilmer said the notion that dairy is loaded with antibiotics just doesn’t make common sense.

“The perception is that antibiotic use on farms is just rampant, and that’s about as far from accurate as possible. Not only is there a cost associated with those antibiotics, there’s a cost associated with the product you cannot sell while the antibiotics are in the animal’s system. We’re going to focus on the things to prevent sickness in the first place and not getting to where we are administering antibiotics on our operations,” he said.

When asked to address the raw milk versus pasteurized milk debate, Gilmer noted that he and his wife have access every day to raw milk for their children.

“To my knowledge, nobody is getting sick from drinking pasteurized milk. I have the opportunity every day to go to my milk tank and get raw milk. My family drinks milk from the grocery store,” he said.

Ayoob applauded the dairy farmer’s statement and added his own perspective.

“I am mortified at parents who want to give their kids raw milk. I am absolutely astounded. I understand the intent, but if you want to do that as a parent, find out about it. There’s a reason it doesn’t happen and before milk was pasteurized, people got sick,” said Ayoob, who said he is a big fan of dairy foods, but raw milk is a gamble. “I think it is a roll of the dice. Drink milk, but drink safe milk.”