Steve Ells, CEO of fast-growing restaurant chain Chipotle, made a trip to Capitol Hill this week to show support for a bill to limit the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in meat production. Ells and others in the “all natural” meat business say their success shows that, with some changes in husbandry, raising animals without drugs can be good business.

“There’s huge, huge demand for this,” said Ells Tuesday during a congressional briefing sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY). The only microbiologist in Congress, Slaughter has been fighting for limits on antibiotic use in livestock for several years on the grounds that overuse of these drugs contributes to antibiotic resistance. Around 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States annually are given to food animals.

“It’s going to take companies like Chipotle creating more demand, but also it’s going to take more work here to call for change in legislation,” said Ells.

Chipotle, which has more than 1,100 locations in 40 states, Canada and the United Kingdom, buys 100 million pounds of antibiotic-free meat a year and the company is looking for more sources to fully meet its demand.

Ells decided to go the natural route more than ten years ago after reading an article about Niman Ranch, a company that sources naturally raised meat from a network of small- and medium-sized farms that don’t use antibiotics and have strict animal welfare standards.

Curious about the concept, he requested a sample of their pork, used it to whip up a batch of carnitas and found that they tasted “much, much better.” He visited some Niman Ranch farms, liked what he saw, and began sourcing pork from them.  

Eventually, Ells became curious about what conventional pork production looked like and he decided to arrange a tour. “What I saw was a level of exploitation I didn’t want to be a part of,” Ells told the audience, citing concerns about workers, animal welfare and the environment.

Niman Ranch, which now supplies much of Chipotle’s pork, and Applegate Farms, which sells antibiotic-free meat at large retail chains, joined Ells on the panel to tout their successful business models and call for policy changes. Though these niche antibiotic-free meat companies represent a tiny fraction of the overall meat market, less than 1 percent, Applegate Farms CEO Stephen McDonnell predicts big growth in the years to come.

“I think it’s going to grow 10 times that in the next 10 years,” said McDonnell. Applegate reaches 1 to 2 million customers across the country each week and is meeting with Walmart in January. “Every time we pick up a customer, we pick up a vote.”

The briefing was meant to drum up support for Rep. Slaughter’s bill, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which would ban antibiotics considered important for human medicine from being used for food-animal growth promotion.

The bill now has 70 cosponsors in the House and 8 signed on in the Senate, but it remains stuck in legislative purgatory. In the House, it was referred to the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health, but the bill doesn’t have a single Republican co-sponsor in a Republican-controlled House (though Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, is a co-sponsor in the Senate), and there haven’t been any hearings in this Congress.

To help raise awareness inside the Beltway, a coalition of public health and consumer groups ran a full page ad in POLITICO, a widely read DC-based publication, to coincide with the briefing.  
Rep. Slaughter believes that the United States is being left behind on this issue.

“Countries like South Korea and Germany are implementing bans on the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in healthy food-animals,” said Slaughter.

“Even China has been progressing toward banning the use of antibiotics in healthy food animals. Meanwhile the US government has done nothing and that’s a real shame,” she added. “I firmly believe that without federal action, this will become a trade issue when the American farmer will no longer be able to compete on a level playing field as other nations will refuse to import meat full of antibiotics.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently denied two petitions on subtherapeutic antibiotic use.

In its denial letters, the agency acknowledged shared concern and “the need to address concerns related to the role that antimicrobial drug use in food-producing animals plays in the emergence and selection of antimicrobial drug resistant bacteria.” But the agency also cited statutory hurdles — such as a notice to the drug maker and an evidentiary hearing on the matter — as reason to deny the petition.