Category Archives: Public health

When evidence and vested interests collide

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Source: Flickr/ Etienne

The scientific method is the best approach we have to study and learn about the physical and natural world. When new knowledge is gained and comes to be the best available evidence at the time (until new, more accurate or in some other way better evidence becomes available), one would hope that the new knowledge finds its way quickly into the relevant disciplines, that practitioners take note and incorporate it into their practice, procedures and policies. In the health area, this time lag has been assumed to be 17 years – but we don’t really know, and “further research is needed”, as they often write in research articles.

There are many reasons for the length of the health research translation process. One of these is conflict of interest. A recent article in MJA InSight demonstrates this nicely. The article is titled “Prostate cancer: urologists fight back”.

We have known for some time that – from a population perspective – screening for prostate cancer and the resultant surgical procedures have overall little benefit for men. Two recent studies have now shown that for men with early prostate cancer, prostatectomy (i. e. surgery to remove all or part of the prostate gland) did not result in reduced mortality, but left many with nasty side effects.

Two recent clinical trials, Prostate Testing for Cancer and Treatment (ProtecT) and Prostate Cancer Intervention versus Observation Trial (PIVOT), completely undermine the stratospheric spin associated with prostate cancer being a death sentence. They are unambiguous in their implications.

The bottom line? Men with early stage abnormalities of the prostate who do not undergo surgery or radiation treatment, but whose condition is monitored for any progression of the cancer, live just as long as men who opted for complete removal of the prostate and who now live with its immediate consequences, including incontinence, intimacy issues, bowel problems and intervention regret.

This should be good news for older men. But they may never be told.

The MJA InSight article quotes prominent urologists who appear to have difficulty accepting the new evidence. Instead, they dismiss the two studies as being flawed.

Besides, a radiation oncologist claims that the surgeons are gatekeepers who often don’t refer higher risk patients to radiotherapy, which – she claims – is as effective as surgery:

There’s a massive financial conflict of interest there, because they don’t have a vested interest in referring men on to a radiation oncologist. They lose income if someone chooses a non-invasive intervention. People are reluctant to say it, but that’s the elephant in the room.

But might radiation oncologists have conflicts of interest as well?

Meanwhile, it may be worth pondering the results of a US study, which compared the recommendations of urologists and radiation oncologists for the treatment of localised prostate cancer. Surprise, surprise: for the same cases, the specialists overwhelmingly recommended the treatment that they themselves delivered.

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Source: Flickr/ Patrick Marioné

I argue there are parallels to animal experimentation. Animal researchers have built their careers on experimenting on animals. That’s their area of expertise, that’s the subject of their publications and conference talks, that’s how they make their living. In universities, the pressure to publish or perish is such that researchers rarely have the luxury to take time out for learning new non-animal, human-relevant methods. Operating on mice and using advanced computer-modelling techniques, for example, are quite different skills.

Grants are won on the basis of prior experience, and the peer review system “punishes researchers with innovative projects that may be risky, but could be highly successful”. Doing things differently and taking risks doesn’t pay:

Well established investigators with mature projects produce large amounts of preliminary data for applications. However, younger researchers (who completed their PhD less than 15 years previously) with new research programs or groundbreaking research, struggle to generate similar volumes of data; their teams are smaller and have less funding; they take more risk and this leads to lower success rates in obtaining funding.

Also, it takes a special person to be able to acknowledge after a career in a particular area that much of their work was of limited use. Dr Elias Zerhouni, ex-director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) had this to say:

We have moved away from studying human disease in humans,” he lamented. “We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included.” With the ability to knock in or knock out any gene in a mouse—which “can’t sue us,” Zerhouni quipped—researchers have over-relied on animal data. “The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem…We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.

The pressure to publish for the sake of publishing can lead to dreadful research. Dreadful because of its cruelty in the treatment of animals, and dreadful because it is a great waste of limited resources. This page on the Retraction Watch website critiques one such study.

The evidence for the limited value of animal experimentation is accumulating. Some point the finger at inferior study design in animal research, or more broadly a lack of scientific rigour, compared to studies that involve humans, while others identify species differences as responsible for the poor predictive value of animal models. For further links to studies that highlight why animals are not good models for human medicine, go to this website and search for the keyword “bias” (without the quotation marks).

Why do we let vested interests, financial or otherwise, have such a detrimental influence on the allocation of resources for biomedical research? That might be a topic for another blog post.

 

 

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The Netherlands – Not just a pretty country

In December 2016, the Netherlands National Committee for the Protection of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes (NCad) provided an advisory report to the Dutch Minister of Agriculture Martijn van Dam after the Minister had requested a schedule for phasing out animal procedures. The report is titled “Transition to non-animal research – About the possibilities for phasing out animal procedures and stimulating innovation without laboratory animals”.

Earlier in 2016, the Dutch Parliament had already passed a motion to phase out all research on non-human primates. The Government aims now at phasing out animal research methods by 2025 and becoming a world leader in animal-free science.

So what is the NCad’s advice?

Overall, the NCad observes that it is time for a paradigm shift. While the animal model has become the “golden standard” in a number of research areas, it inflicts pain and suffering on animals and is perpetuated, for example, “because the current scientific quality assessment system is generally based on bibliometric criteria”, because journals impose animal data requirements on authors, and because the use of animal procedures is stipulated in many guidelines and laws.

Conversely, alternative approaches are becoming more common and “will increase in number and importance”. But the provision of funding for alternatives and innovation is not enough for a paradigm shift to occur. The parties involved in the field will also need to no longer regard animal research as the golden standard, or animal research is “no longer delivering the necessary results”.

In regard to the latter, I would argue that for some decades animal research has not delivered the necessary results for governments and citizens, although it has delivered profits and careers for the industry.

The report argues for strong government leadership to enable a paradigm shift to animal-free science.

The NCad believes that it is only with a broad-ranging and coordinated effort by the ministries involved and other stakeholders that significant progress can be made in reducing the use of animals in research. The choice of a clear direction, clear objectives and concrete steps is essential in this context, but emotions, social structures and other factors over which less influence can be wielded inevitably play a role, given the nature of transitions.

According to the report, regulatory research and testing can and should be phased out by 2025:

The use of laboratory animals in regulatory safety testing of chemicals, food ingredients, pesticides and (veterinary) medicines can be phased out by 2025, whilst maintaining the existing safety level. The same applies to the use of laboratory animals for the release of biological products, such as vaccines.

This should occur together with an international review of the regulatory risk assessment process.

However, the NCad suggests that regulatory pre-clinical research “cannot be phased out at the same pace”.

In regulatory clinical research, medicines that were successful in animal procedures often fail in clinical trials. For these instances, so-called backward validation studies can be used to investigate or determine the predictive value of pre-clinical animal tests and innovative methods for clinical research on human subjects. On the basis of the insights obtained, pre-clinical research models can be improved. The NCad recommends for the Minister for Agriculture to make funds available for this.

For fundamental scientific research, the NCad recommends the development of a 10-year plan for the different areas of basic research in consultation with the public and the scientific community.

In regard to applied and translational research, the NCad observes that “more rapid progress can be made than is being made at the present time. There is a great deal of innovative potential that could be better exploited.”

For education and training,

NCad recognises that the use of laboratory animals in training professionals involved in the field will continue to be necessary to a certain extent, but believes that, here too, cultivating a mindset that does not rely on laboratory animals will help keep the number of animal procedures to a minimum.

The NCad encourages the Netherlands Government to take leadership at the international level. For example:

Urge the European Commission to define a European strategy that takes an ambitious and integrated approach to non-animal research, one that includes animal welfare and the 3Rs in impact assessments and the development of new legislation and regulations. Also, call for existing legislation and regulations to be critically reviewed in this respect, and for it to be mandatory for accepted alternatives to be included, for funds to be made available for the further development of innovations without laboratory animals and for EU standards to be observed in commercial treaties.

…consider collaborating with the US organisations EPA (for the risk assessment of substances and pesticides) and FDA (for the risk assessment of medicines and food additives), as part of a European alliance or otherwise, on the theme of New Risk Management in approval of substances.

… In collaboration with the ministries of Health, Welfare and Sport and Infrastructure and the Environment, the RIVM and relevant international organisations, endeavour to obtain European agreements that make it easier to depart from regulatory animal procedures where possible through the use of validated alternative methods. Also, aim for transparent communication regarding situations where alternatives to the regulatory animal procedures have been used.

Overall, this is a great initiative towards phasing out animal experiments. It shows that it can be done given the political will. Congratulations to Minister van Dam and his government. Congratulations also to the citizens of the Netherlands who have advocated for this change. I hope that other countries will follow your example.

Meat, a not so palatable investment?

Recently, I have noticed warnings by the finance industry about investing in meat. While many of us have known for some time that meat is bad news for human health, the environment and of course the animals whose flesh is eaten, it’s good news that the finance industry starts pointing out the unsustainability of the meat industry.

The meat industry is powerful, and proclaiming the obvious can lead to a backlash. For example, in June this year the Bayer Crop Science Twitter account reportedly suggested that going vegetarian can cut a person’s carbon footprint in half. The tweet has since been deleted and Bayer has apologised to the industry. Bayer apologised for expressing a view based on evidence, but unwelcome to Bayer’s business partners:

Source: Twitter/ @Bayer4Crops

Source: Twitter/ @Bayer4Crops

Last month, a coalition of 40 institutional investors launched an engagement with 16 multinational food companies highlighting the risks of investing in industrial animal production. The coalition represents investments of US $1.25 trillion and includes investors such as Swedish state pension funds AP2, AP3 and AP4, Aviva Investors, Boston Common, Coller Capital, Folksam, Nordea and Robeco. Australian Ethical Investment is also part of the coalition. The investors are urging food companies to transition to plant-based sources of protein.

The investors are responding to a recent Oxford University study which calculated that if global diets reduced their reliance on meat it could lead to healthcare – related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion by 2050. The analysis report also points to regulatory trends as a driver for corporate action – such as Denmark’s consultation on the introduction of red meat tax and the Chinese government’s plan to reduce its citizens’ meat consumption by 50%.

The company Nestle’s response is reported in an article on the Fortune.com website:

A Nestle spokeswoman said the company did not use much meat, “so our main strategy is not to focus on replacing the meat that we do use as its impact would be minimal. Our main opportunities lie in innovating new products using alternate proteins”.

Meanwhile, Forbes.com reports that “Tech Companies Join Fight Against America’s Top Killers”. The article provides examples of tech companies that give health care providers and patients tools to help them with the transition to a plant-based diet, thus preventing and fighting chronic diseases.

If the pharmaceutical industry produced a pill that provided the healing power of a plant-based diet, it would be a blockbuster.’ – Dr. Rob Ostfeld.

Tyson Foods is one of the worlds largest meat processors. So it might be surprising that Tyson is investing in Beyond Meat, a company that produces plant-based alternatives to meat. Taking a 5% stake in Beyond Meat is considered a shrewd move. It probably is, given that people in the US are eating more plant-based foods and this is reflected in (plant-based) industry growth.

In Germany, large meat processors are now in competition with smaller companies that produce meat alternatives, and some of the latter fear they may be pushed out of the market. Two years ago, Rügenwalder Mühle started with a side-line of plant-based sausage and meat products, and many other meat processors have since followed.

Research conducted jointly last year by the NPD Group, Midan Marketing and Meatingplace, an industry publication, found that 70 percent of meat eaters said they used a meat substitute in place of meat protein at least once a week. And 22 percent said they were using such substitutes more frequently than a year earlier.

The trend away from meat towards plant-based foods is evident not just in the US, but also in other countries, such as Australia, Germany, the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands. The finance industry does well to take note.

 

Further reading

Alan Briefel (2016) Why factory farming is becoming a major risk to portfolios.

FAIRR and Share Action (2016) The future of food: The investment case for a protein shake up.

Kirschner’s Korner (2016) Beyond meat CEO responds to concerns about Tyson Foods investment

Neal Barnard (2016) FDA: don’t label meat ‘healthy’

Consultation on animal welfare reform in Victoria needs our ideas

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Source: Victorian Government

The Victorian Government is consulting on animal welfare reform. Submissions to Improving the Welfare of Animals in Victoria. Draft Action Plan 2016-2021 are due on 11 October.

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I have just emailed my submission, and if you live in Victoria, I encourage you to have your say, too.

Here is what I wrote to The Hon Jaala Pulford MP, Minister for Agriculture, and Ms Lizzie Blandthorn MP, Member for Pascoe Vale (I have not commented on all aspects of the draft plan):

 

Dear Minister Pulford and Ms Blandthorn,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the “Improving the Welfare of Animals in Victoria. Draft Action Plan 2016-2021”.

Overall comments

I agree with the broad three action areas proposed in the draft plan. I also share your view that Victoria needs a proactive plan that promotes evidence-based animal welfare practices and reflects community expectations, and that we need a collaborative approach to accomplish this. To achieve all this, it is of utmost importance that the animal welfare portfolio and the regulation of animal welfare are free of conflict of interest. Currently, this is not the case while these roles sit within the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources. To be effective, fair to the animals and responsive to community expectation, the animal welfare portfolio has to be independent of the agriculture and industry portfolios. An independent office of animal welfare, set up as a statutory authority, is needed.

In the draft plan, you point out correctly that “Animals are able to perceive their environment, and experience sensations such as pain and suffering, or pleasure and comfort”. Our knowledge of animal sentience and cognition is constantly increasing. For example:

  • fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates, and fish experience pain in a manner similar to the other vertebrates (1)
  • animals suffer psychological pain in the form of fear and stress, caused by conditions such as captivity, confinement, physical harm, loss of social bonds, and isolation (2)
  • in 2012, a group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists declared “that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates” (3).

Thus animals deserve moral consideration and it is our obligation to protect them from human-inflicted pain and suffering. For example, animal use for sport and entertainment that results in pain, suffering and/or death is morally indefensible and should stop. Consequently, as a first step, recreational shooting (in particular duck shooting), jumps racing and greyhound racing should be disallowed in Victoria. Some states have already banned duck shooting, and greyhound racing will be banned in NSW and possibly the ACT from next year. If it is possible in other states, why not in Victoria?

In regard to the action areas as outlined in the draft plan, I offer the following comments:

Action area 1: Victoria has contemporary animal welfare laws

As you state in the draft plan, it is important that welfare legislation in Victoria is contemporary. The community expects that animal welfare legislation is developed with compassion and fairness. Therefore, the development of animal welfare legislation should be led by a body free of conflict of interest, such as an independent office of animal welfare.

The development of regulation and legislation should be, as you note, evidence-based and consequently free of conflict of interest. Therefore, the plan should spell out clearly that on relevant panels and decision-making groups those individuals and groups with a financial or other personal interest in the use of animals (such as recreational shooters) should be in the minority, if consulted at all.

In your list of stakeholders you include animal owners, industries, stakeholder and enforcement groups and the community. Where are animal welfare/ animal advocacy groups? The words “animal advocacy” or “animal advocate” do not appear in this document. Given that this document is concerned with improving the welfare of animals, and not improving the use of animals for the benefit of humans, and that animals can’t speak for themselves, animal advocates need to be given greater prominence in the document.

Codes of practice have in the past been developed by industry. They are part of industry self-regulation and have not served animals well. For example, the commercial production of “food animals” allows practices that the community finds abhorrent, such as tail docking and castration without anaesthesia or pain relief. The development of appropriate and humane animal husbandry practices should not be left for industry to decide. An independent office of animal welfare, as suggested above, should take a leading role in the development of codes of practice and animal husbandry regulation.

A review of Victoria’s current animal welfare legislation is timely. For example, Victorian primary and secondary schools are required to obtain approval from an animal ethics committee (AEC) for educational projects that involve live animals. However, there is no such requirement for early childhood services. Thus, for example chicken hatching projects undertaken in schools require ethics approval, but the same projects undertaken in early childhood services do not. This must have been an oversight when the legislation was introduced, and early childhood services should be brought in line with schools.

Action area 2: Collaborative approaches underpin knowledge, commitment and investment in animal welfare

A collaborative approach works best when it is free of conflict of interest. As noted above, it is crucial that the animal welfare portfolio is independent of industry and other groups with an interest in the commercial or recreational use of animals.

2.1 a) Identify opportunities for innovation, collaboration and investment, on activities that promote and implement sound animal welfare practices.

Animals that are used for their meat, eggs and milk comprise by far the largest number of animals whose welfare depends on humans. The large number of “food animals” is unsustainable for three reasons:

  1. The conditions under which animals in factory farms are kept are inhumane: confinement, overcrowding, surgical procedures without anaesthesia or pain relief, the creation of “waste animals” (such as male chicks and male calves). If we kept our pets in such conditions, we would be rightly accused of animal cruelty. Many common practices in factory farming are legalised animal cruelty.
  2. The over-consumption of animal products is one of the factors that have led to a public health crisis in Australia. Dairy and meat products have been linked to various cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s (e.g., 4, 5, 6). Further, the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria is largely due to the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in factory farming. It leads to the development of drug resistance and is already a serious problem for our health system (7, 8).
  3. The negative impact of meat and dairy production on the environment has been well documented (e.g., 9, 10-12). For example, it contributes to the pollution of our land, air, and water, and to climate change.

The fact that factory farming is unsustainable has also been identified by the finance industry (e.g., 13, 14). It is therefore in the best interest of the community and the animal agriculture sector for governments to support producers to transition to plant-based products.

2.1 d) Ethical care and use of animals for research, testing and teaching

Ethical care and use of animals in research and teaching requires transparency and making information that is of interest to the community publicly available. Given that much animal research is publicly funded, transparency is also part of accountability to the public. For example, why does Victoria not make the names of licence holders publicly available, like some other states do (e.g. Tasmania)? Why are the licensed institutions’ annual reports to the state government not publicly available (identifying details redacted)?

I suggest that you add to this section a statement declaring the intention to provide greater transparency in regard to animals used for scientific purposes and teaching. Further, I suggest that Victoria work together with other states/territories to achieve consistency in reporting of animal use data in research and teaching.

The Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes (15) states that opportunities to rehome animals should be considered wherever possible. I suggest that Victoria go beyond the “should be considered” and require serious rehoming efforts for suitable animals at conclusion of their use in research and teaching.

Action area 3: Compliance and enforcement is efficient and effective

Compliance and enforcement relies on adequate resources. The compliance and enforcement system needs to be better funded and supported to do its important work. A commitment to adequate funding should be included in the plan.

3.2 b) provide training and advice to applicants and holders of licences to use animals for research, testing and teaching

Further to the training courses and best practice guidelines as suggested in your draft plan, I propose training for institutions and AECs not only about the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes and its interpretation, but also about non-animal methods to strengthen implementation of the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) as required by the Code.

Overall, most of the deliverables as outlined in the draft plan appear worthy of support, but I have not commented on these to keep my submission brief or because I do not know enough about the issues to be able to comment (e.g. wildlife management).

I commend your initiative to develop this plan and am looking forward to a Victorian animal welfare plan that promotes strong protection and that will improve the welfare of animals in our state.

Sincerely,

Monika Merkes PhD (public health)

References

  1. Brown C. Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics. Anim Cogn. 2014 2014/06/19:1-17. English. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10071-014-0761-0.
  2. Jones RC. Science, sentience, and animal welfare. Biology & Philosophy. 2013;28(1):1-30. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10539-012-9351-1.
  3. Low P, Panksepp J, Reiss D, Edelman D, Van Swinderen B, Low P, et al. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. 2012. Available at: http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf.
  4. Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, et al. Association of animal and plant protein intake with all-cause and cause-specific mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2016 (1 August). Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4182.
  5. Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, Spiegelman D, Chiuve SE, Borgi L, et al. Plant-based dietary patterns and incidence of type 2 diabetes in us men and women: Results from three prospective cohort studies. PLoS Medicine. 2016;13(6):e1002039. Available at: http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039.
  6. Grant WB. Using multicountry ecological and observational studies to determine dietary risk factors for Azheimer’s disease. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2016 2016/07/03;35(5):476-89. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2016.1161566.
  7. O’Neill J. Antimicrobials in agriculture and the environment: Reducing unnecessary use and waste. Wellcome Trust and UK Government, 2015. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/health_food-safety/amr/docs/amr_studies_2015_am-in-agri-and-env.pdf.
  8. World Health Organization. The evolving threat of antimicrobial resistance. Options for action. Geneva: WHO, 2012. Available at: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2012/9789241503181_eng.pdf.
  9. Westhoek H, Lesschen JP, Rood T, Wagner S, De Marco A, Murphy-Bokern D, et al. Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe’s meat and dairy intake. Global Environmental Change. 2014;26(May). Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378014000338.
  10. Springmann M, Godfray HCJ, Rayner M, Scarborough P. Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2016 March 21, 2016. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/03/16/1523119113.abstract.
  11. Djekic I. Environmental impact of meat industry – Current status and future perspectives. Procedia Food Science. 2015 //;5:61-4. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211601X15001157.
  12. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, Castel V, Rosales M, de Haan C. Livestock’s long shadow. Environmental issues and options. Executive summary. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006. Available at: ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/A0701E/A0701E00.pdf.
  13. Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return, Share Action. The future of food: The investment case for a protein shake up. 2016 Briefing. 2016. Available at: http://www.fairr.org/wp-content/uploads/FAIRR-and-ShareAction-Protein-Briefing-September-2016.pdf.
  14. Alembakis R. Australian Ethical Investment engages on sustainability of meat: The Constant Investor; 2016 [updated 6 October 2016; cited 2016 9 October]. Available at: https://theconstantinvestor.com/australian-ethical-investment-engages-sustainability-meat/.
  15. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes. 8th Edition 2013. Canberra: NHMRC, Australian Government, 2013. Available at: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/ea28.

 

What’s new in the new guidelines for primate research?

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Baboons. Source: Flickr/  Derek Keats

Scientific purposes: all activities conducted with the aim of acquiring, developing or demonstrating knowledge or techniques in all areas of science, including teaching, field trials, environmental studies, research (including the creation and breeding of a new animal line where the impact on animal wellbeing is unknown or uncertain), diagnosis, product testing and the production of biological products.

Under the Australian federal system, responsibility for animal welfare rests with the states, and all states and territories have incorporated the Code – not always to its full extent – under their animal welfare or animal research laws. This is acknowledged in the new “Principles and guidelines for the care and use of non-human primates for scientific purposes”:

On some issues, this document represents an aspirational standard which may not currently be supported by state and territory legislation and in which case the state and territory legislation takes precedence.

Positive changes (compared to the previous 2003 policy)

Let’s start with the positives in the new principles and guidelines. By that I mean specifications or requirements that are positive from an animal welfare perspective and that were not included in the previous policy.

Great apes (gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees and bonobos) are now afforded greater protection. The document notes that no great apes are held in Australia for scientific purposes.

The only great apes held in Australia are in zoological collections for conservation breeding purposes.

And for entertainment purposes, I would like to add.

Now, the use of great apes for scientific purposes in Australia is permitted only when their use:

i) will not have any appreciable negative impact on the animals involved, e.g. observational studies, activities already being undertaken for management or veterinary purposes

ii) will potentially benefit the individual animal and/or their species.

There hasn’t been any research using great apes for decades in Australia. While this is a positive step, it will not impact any current research. For other primates, hardly anything has changed since the previous policy.

But back to the positives:

Non-human primates that are imported from overseas must be captive bred and must be accompanied by documentation to certify their captive-bred status.

It’s prohibited to tear primates from their wild habitats. Still, young animals are torn from their mothers, and import from breeding facilities overseas involves stress during transport.

Further, the new guidelines specify that retirement at conclusion of the research must be considered. The previous policy noted that the existing breeding facilities “will not generally accept animals that have been used for scientific purposes. In most cases, euthanasia will be the only option.” Does this mean that Australian primate breeding facilities accept now animals after they have been used in research?

Provisions for non-human primates at the conclusion of their use must take into account their long-term welfare. Retirement must be considered as an option if suitable in terms of the health and temperament of the animal, and space and resources are available at a facility that can meet their species-specific physical, social and behavioural needs.

But does the NHMRC anything to ensure rehoming options are available? To my knowledge, the answer is “no”.

According to the new guidelines, breeding facilities are not supposed to breed more animals than are needed for research (Australia has breeding colonies for macaques, marmosets and baboons):

Procedures must be in place at all non-human primate breeding facilities to ensure that the breeding programs are matched to the demand for animals, and to avoid or minimise the production of excess animals. Investigators must discuss their requirements for non-human primates with the management of the supply facility early in the planning stages for the project to assist with management of breeding programs.

The previous policy noted that investigators performing experiments overseas under the auspices of an Australian institution obtain approval from an Australian animal ethics committee, and that this may include the delegation of authority to inspect sites and monitor projects at remote sites. The new guidelines state explicitly that undertaking the experiments overseas must not be a way to bypass the Code:

If a project involving the use of non-human primates is to be conducted in another country, Clauses 2.6.9- 2.6.14 of the Code must be upheld. The conduct of a project in another country should not be used as a mechanism for avoiding compliance with Code.

The new guidelines include a section on reward-based training. It is proposed that using positive reinforcement techniques should be considered part of experimental designs for three reasons:

i) assisting in captive management, by seeking the animal’s compliance with routine husbandry and behavioural training

ii) improving the animal’s welfare, by training to facilitate the conduct of routine procedures without the need for chemical restraint

iii) ensuring the quality of the scientific data collected.

The new requirement for “training methods … not be based on approaches that involve punishment such as pain or psychologically distressing stimuli” appears to be primarily motivated by the intent to improve compliance of the captive animal.

Positive changes (compared to the draft guidelines)

The draft guidelines had proposed that the requirement of notifying the NHMRC’s Animal Welfare Committee (AWC) of primate imports be dropped because importing animals is subject to Commonwealth regulation. However, this proposed change did not go ahead:

The institution should ensure that the AWC of NHMRC is notified of the importation of non-human primates after approval from the institutional AEC has been obtained. For NHMRC funded activities, this requirement is mandatory.

In the section concerned with transport of animals, the following sentence was added:

Transport conditions must be designed to minimise stress (see Clauses 3.2.5–3.2.8 of the Code).

But shouldn’t all conditions – in regard to housing, transport and experiments – be designed to minimise stress?

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Macaques. Source: Flickr/ Franx’

Serious problems remain

While non-human primates are our closest relatives and genetically the most similar to us humans, does experimenting on these animals really benefit humans? Aren’t there better, more human-relevant research methods? And more importantly, is it morally defensible to subject these highly sentient and cognitive animals to the stress, pain and often death after experimentation?

Overall, the new guidelines do not represent compelling progress. A few baby steps may lead toward slightly improved animal welfare, but the guidelines are still steeped in an outdated paradigm. Even within this paradigm, we can decry the lack of transparency in animal research, non-existent or insignificant benefits for humans and animals, and the NHMRC and its funded institutions’ lack of taking responsibility for the fate of non-human primates after completion of research projects. The NHMRC funds primate breeding colonies, and funding a sanctuary for “retired” primates should be its responsibility, too.

So, what’s new in the new guidelines for non-human primates? Hardly anything that reduces pain and suffering and improves the lives of our closest relatives who are used for scientific purposes.

The primates used by medical research are sensitive and intelligent beings. We owe them a decent life, not confinement, suffering and untimely death in the lab.

Disclosure

Together with Sir David Attenborough, Dr Jane Goodall and 19 other scientists, primatologists and animal welfare experts I signed an open letter “Testing on non-human primates in neuroscience research is no longer justifiable”, supporting Cruelty Free International in raising concerns about the controversial use of non-human primates in neuroscience research.

 

Further reading  

National Health and Medical Research Council. (2016). Principles and guidelines for the care and use of non-human primates for scientific purposes. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Government.

Helen Marston, CEO of Humane Research Australia, has commented on the new guidelines on her blog: “New guidelines for primate research will not protect our closest relatives”.

Jeory, T., & Stone, J. (2016, 8 September). David Attenborough calls for end to ‘cruel’ brain tests on primates by neuroscientists. Exclusive: Sir David joins 21 signatories to an open letter published in The Independent. The Independent.

Lidbury, B. A. (2016). Medical science has moved on: it’s time to end primate testing. Australian Doctor(17 March).

Academic articles:

Bailey, J., & Taylor, K. (2009). The SCHER report on non-human primate research – biased and deeply flawed. Alternatives to laboratory animals : ATLA, 37(4), 427-435.

Bailey, J., & Taylor, K. (2016). Non-human primates in neuroscience research: The case against its scientific necessity. Alternatives to Laboratory Animals – ATLA, 44(1).

Bailey, J., Thew, M., & Balls, M. (2015). Predicting human drug toxicity and safety via animal tests: can any one species predict drug toxicity in any other, and do monkeys help? Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, 43(6), 393-403.

Burm, S. M., Prins, J. B., Langermans, J., & Bajramovic, J. J. (2014). Alternative methods for the use of non-human primates in biomedical research. Altex, 31(4), 520-529.

Chandrasekera, P. C., & Pippin, J. J. (2015). The human subject: an integrative animal model for 21st century heart failure research. American Journal of Translational Research, 7(9), 1636-1647.

Gilbert, S., Kaebnick, G. E., & Murray, T. H. (2012). Animal research ethics. Evolving views and practices: The Hastings Center.

Gordon, N., & Langley, G. (2008). Replacing primates in medical research. An expert report by: Dr Hadwen Trust, FRAME, St Andrew Animal Fund.

Greek, R., Hansen, L. A., & Menache, A. (2011). An analysis of the Bateson Review of research using nonhuman primates. Medicolegal and Bioethics, 1, 3-22.

Taylor, K. (2010). Reporting the implementation of the Three Rs in European primate and mouse research papers: are we making progress? Alternatives to laboratory animals : ATLA, 38(6), 495-517.

Wendler, D. (2014). Should protections for research with humans who cannot consent apply to research with nonhuman primates? Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 35(2), 157-173.

 

 

No need to wait for government food policy

Earlier this month, the Medical Journal of Australia published an article with the headline “Time to commit to good food policy”. After all, the most recent food and nutrition policy was released in 1992. A new National Nutrition Policy has been in the making for years.

Meanwhile, nearly two in three Australian adults are overweight or obese and unhealthy diets are leading to chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. At the same time, we have access to more and more research evidence that could help us in turning this dire situation around.

In the US, as a recent study documented, a diet of mostly subsidised foods increases cardiometabolic risk factors:

Researchers followed 10,308 American participants from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and measured the percentage of calories consumed from subsidized foods, body weight, blood pressure, inflammation measures, and cholesterol levels. Those who consumed the highest amount of subsidized foods, including high-fat meat and dairy products, were 41 percent and 21 percent more likely to be overweight and have elevated blood sugars, respectively, compared with those who consumed the least amount of subsidized foods. Those participants also saw an increase in their cholesterol levels and consumed low amounts of fruits and vegetables. The authors call for more aligned policies between agriculture and nutritional goals in an effort to curb rising obesity rates.

I am not aware of a similar study here in Australia. But it would be interesting.

Other countries or jurisdictions have already started to take action. For example:

 

Some Australians don’t wait for the Federal Government’s new food policy. A CSIRO and University of Adelaide study published last year found that one in six Australians now avoid dairy products. This was of concern to the researchers. BTW, the study was funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation and looked also at the avoidance of wheat.

There are good reasons to avoid dairy products: they have been linked to various cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

 

But back to our food policy, or rather the lack of it. While we’re waiting for the new National Nutrition Policy, we have a Healthy Food Partnership which “aims to improve the dietary habits of Australians by making healthier food choices easier and more accessible and by raising awareness of better food choices and portion sizes”.

And who are the partners? The Executive Committee of the Partnership includes representatives from:

  • Australian Food and Grocery Council
  • National Heart Foundation of Australia
  • Woolworths
  • Coles
  • Metcash (Independent Grocers)
  • Public Health Association of Australia
  • Quick Service Restaurant Forum
  • Food Standards Australia New Zealand
  • Dietitians Association of Australia
  • Ausveg
  • Meat and Livestock Australia
  • Dairy Australia

Dr Rosemary Stanton, perhaps Australia’s most respected nutritionist and dietician, has argued that such an initiative would only be effective if it was independent of the food industry. I agree with her.

No need to wait for government food policy. The evidence is pointing to a plant-based whole-food diet.

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Source: faqs.org

Recently published articles in peer-reviewed journals concerned with nutrition and health:

This systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention trials found that plant-based diets improve obesity-related inflammation: Effect of plant-based diets on obesity-related inflammatory profiles: a systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention trials

This study shows that red meat intake may increase the risk of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) in the general population and substituting alternative sources of protein may reduce the incidence of ESRD: Red meat intake and risk of ESRD

Plant-based diets: A physician’s guide. Abstract — Because of the ever-increasing body of evidence in support of the health advantages of plant-based nutrition, there is a need for guidance on implementing its practice. This article provides physicians and other health care practitioners an overview of the myriad benefits of a plant-based diet as well as details on how best to achieve a well-balanced, nutrient-dense meal plan. It also defines notable nutrient sources, describes how to get started, and offers suggestions on how health care practitioners can encourage their patients to achieve goals, adhere to the plan, and experience success.

The findings from this study support recommendations to replace saturated fat and trans-fat with unsaturated fats: Association of specific dietary fats with total and cause-specific mortality.

Systematic review and meta-analysis suggest that dietary cholesterol intake increases risk of breast cancer

In this study, a vegan diet was found to be better for glycemic control than a conventional diet: Effect of a Brown Rice Based Vegan Diet and Conventional Diabetic Diet on Glycemic Control of Patients with Type 2 Diabetes: A 12-Week Randomized Clinical Trial

How being kind to animals can slow down rise in antibiotic resistance

Source: Flickr/ Farm Sanctuary

Source: Flickr/ Farm Sanctuary

Two days ago, The Age published an article with the headline “The superbug that could render antibiotics useless just hit the US”. This superbug is resistant to colistin, one of the strongest antibiotics. Colistin-resistent bacteria have also been identified in China, Canada and Europe. Meanwhile, St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne is reportedly screening patients for antibiotic resistant bacteria called Carbapenem Resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). These bacteria can kill half the people they infect.

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections in humans and animals. In animals used for food they are also commonly used to prevent infections. In factory farming animals are regularly fed antibiotics in sub-therapeutic doses, that is in doses that are lower than those required to treat infections. These low doses are particularly likely to lead to the development of resistant bacteria. Antibiotics are also used to a lesser extent for growth promotion in animals. The extensive and routine use of antibiotics in human and non-human animals has contributed to the emergence, persistence and spread of resistant bacteria.

Resistant bacteria in food-producing animals are of concern because, through the consumption of animal foods, they can directly or indirectly result in antibiotic resistant infections in humans. From the factory farm, they also spread via water, air and manured soils. Meat labelled as “organic” or “antibiotic-free” is not necessarily safe. For example, a study from the US found that

regardless of product type, fresh retail chicken breast is commonly contaminated with enteric pathogens associated with foodborne illness and commensal bacteria harboring genes conferring resistance to critically important antimicrobial drugs.

(The term “antimicrobial” refers to a group of organisms that include bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi.)

Humans do not routinely take antibiotic drugs for the prevention of diseases. So why should this be necessary for farm animals? Most of the 500 million farm animals we eat every year in Australia live in such overcrowded and unhygienic conditions that they are prone to infections. It is cheaper to feed antibiotics than improve the animals’ living conditions.

On average, 587 tonnes of antimicrobials were sold annually in Australia for veterinary use over the period 2005-2010. Ninety-eight per cent of this was for food producing animals. The percentage used for growth promotion was around 4% (23.5 tonnes).

The public health threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has been recognised for some time. While AMR had been observed for the first time only a few years after the discovery of antibiotic medicine in the 1940s, it has developed into a global threat over the last two decades.

According to the World Health Organization

AMR makes it difficult and more expensive to treat a variety of common infections, causing delays in effective treatment, or in worst cases, inability to provide appropriate therapy. Many of the medical advances in recent years, such as chemotherapy for cancer treatment and organ transplantation, are dependent on the availability of anti-infective drugs. The predictable consequence of resistance is increased morbidity, prolonged illness, a greater risk of complications, and higher mortality rates. The economic burden includes loss of productivity (loss in income, diminished worker productivity, time spent by family) and increased cost of diagnostics and treatment (consultation, infrastructure, screening, cost of equipment, drugs). Both the health and economic consequences of AMR are considerable and costly but difficult to quantify precisely as the available data are incomplete in many countries. The additional human burden associated with it (pain, change in daily activities, psychosocial costs) is also significant, but even more difficult to quantify.

The Australian Government released its first National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy (2015-2019) last year. The Strategy observes that antimicrobial resistance “affects everyone, regardless of where they live, their health, economic circumstances, lifestyle or behaviour”. It affects human health, animal health, agriculture and food production.

The Strategy points to a “significant knowledge gap” in understanding the extent of resistant bacteria in the food chain and the risks they present. But why would there be a knowledge gap? Perhaps our Government has not made sufficient resources available to research this problem?

Overall, the focus of the Strategy, as far as animal agriculture is concerned, is on education and training, surveillance, research, partnerships and collaboration.

In November 2015, 170 representatives from the human health, animal health and agriculture sectors met in Canberra at the National Antimicrobial Resistance Forum to discuss collaboration in implementing the Strategy. Participants noted that animal health and agriculture initiatives, including livestock and wildlife, were underrepresented in antimicrobial resistance related activities.

Source: Flickr/ Farm Sanctuary

Source: Flickr/ Farm Sanctuary

In contrast, a recently released report commissioned by the UK Prime Minister calls for the reduction of unnecessary use of antimicrobials in agriculture and their dissemination into the environment. In the report, “unnecessary” is understood to mean any use that is not meant for the treatment of sick animals.

Further, the report seeks restrictions on certain types of highly critical antibiotics, the so called last-line drugs for humans that are currently also used in agriculture. And it demands more transparency from food producers on the antibiotics used to produce meat, to enable consumers to make more informed purchase decisions. It will be interesting to see what action the UK Government takes in response to this report.

It looks like we can’t expect the Australian Government any time soon to remedy the dreadful living conditions imposed on animals we use for food, which would reduce the “need” for the widespread use of antibiotics. The main political parties keep ignoring the urgency of this public health and animal welfare issue, and only the Greens Party and the Animal Justice Party call for an end of intensive factory farming.

While our Government is dithering and hoping for the development of new vaccines, wouldn’t it be prudent to reduce our consumption of animal foods? Even better, stop consuming meat and other animal products. This would also be kinder to the animals and more environmentally sustainable.

 

Further reading

Antibiotic resistance. The grim prospect (21 May 2016) The Economist.

Society must seize control of the antibiotics crisis (25 May 2016) Nature.

Use of antibiotics in agriculture expected to skyrocket worldwide (23 March 2015) HealthLine.

Treating cattle with antibiotics affects greenhouse gas emissions, and microbiota in dung and dung beetles (25 May 2016) Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences.