About 80 percent of all antibiotics distributed in the U.S. are for food animals. They’re commonly used to promote growth and to prevent, control and treat disease. Overuse can promote the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the food supply and ultimately cause resistant infections in humans.
In September, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report noting that, although the majority of drug-resistant infections occur in healthcare settings, concern is growing over antibiotic-resistant infections from food.
Most recently, at least 389 people in 23 states and Puerto Rico have been sickened by strains of multidrug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg in connection with chicken produced by Foster Farms.
In March of this year, U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced the fourth version of her Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would ban non-therapeutic uses of medically important antibiotics in food animal production.
Food Safety News recently caught up with Slaughter for a conversation about the seriousness of antibiotic resistance and the path forward to a ban.
FSN: How would you summarize the gravity of ever-increasing antibiotic resistance?
LS: One of the greatest breakthroughs ever in the field of medicine is seriously compromised by this. We need to stop this overuse in livestock, and, frankly, I don‘t think it does the livestock any good either. The most important thing that I want to convey is the instant need to do this. We haven’t got time to waste.
FSN: In your bill, you note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first concluded that feeding livestock low doses of antibiotics used in human disease treatment could promote the development of antibiotic-resistance in bacteria back in 1977. Why do you think it’s been 36 years and we haven’t done much to address the issue?
LS: Because 88 percent of the lobbying done on this bill was from people opposed to it. And we can’t get anywhere with either the FDA or USDA to make changes – even though we have over 400 outside groups supporting us, including every major scientific group in the country and medical groups. But we simply can’t crack that code of why do the producers have more clout than the consumers.
FSN: What is it that the producers are concerned about?
LS: What they believe is that it makes the animal grow faster and heftier – they get a better price for it. I don’t think that that’s at all conclusive because countries such as Denmark figured this out years ago. They are doing a better job of containing diseases on farms and their meat is healthier, and people are willing to pay for that.
Certainly one of the reasons that we believe that the American agribusiness uses so many antibiotics is that they keep the livestock in despicable, filthy, dirt-ridden conditions. And then they try to make up for that.
FSN: So what is it going to take to get action on this issue?
LS: We have no idea. I tried to make the case that this needed to be done, that this is an emergency, that we are really destroying the efficacy of one of the most important medical breakthroughs in the history of the world. And all I got back [from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] was, “We’re going to give them three more years.”
FSN: Is there something that could sway Congress or FDA into action?
LS: We need to get consumers to say, “We’re not going to eat it. We will not feed this to our families. Cut it out.” Already there are some companies that don’t use antibiotics and hormones in their food. [They’re] hard to find, but we really have to make the case, as they have done in other countries, that you just can’t do that anymore.
I learned from another bill that I was carrying how much the publicity matters, and the only way I could ever get the majority in the House to even take up a bill like that would be an outcry from the public.
FSN: Lastly, I’d like to ask for your reaction to the situation with Foster Farms.
LS: Foster Farms blamed the consumer. They said they don’t know how to cook this chicken, and they suggested 160 degrees. But Costco had their chicken and cooked it to 180 degrees, and it was still contaminated. Given that Foster Farms has 15 facilities in the country and that none of them were closed down, however, nothing was basically done about it.
As a microbiologist, I’m angry. As a member of Congress, I’m furious.© Food Safety News