Citing an increased incidence of foodborne illness outbreaks caused by antibiotic-resistant pathogens, public health advocates are again ratcheting up pressure on Congress to limit routine, subtherapeutic antibiotic use in agriculture.

At back to back briefings on Capitol Hill late last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Center for a Livable Future presented a panel of experts to House and Senate staffers with a straightforward message on whether the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a human health issue: “the science is clear.”

“The science is so clear that the political pressure on the FDA won’t be able to keep us from moving forward,” said founding director of the Center for a Livable Future, Robert Lawrence, a professor of environmental health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “The pharmaceutical and animal industries continue to deny the scientific evidence. We believe that the science is clear.”

At the meetings, dozens of staffers were briefed on a new white paper put out by CSPI focused on these so-called superbugs and foodborne illness outbreaks. CSPI reported that in 2011, 167 illnesses, 47 hospitalizations and one death were linked to antibiotic-resistant foodborne pathogens.

Two of the outbreaks were connected to ground turkey — one contaminated with Salmonella Hadar and one with Salmonella Heidelberg — and one outbreak was connected to ground beef contaminated with Salmonella Typhimurium. “All of those bacteria were resistant to treatment from several antibiotics that are critically important to human medicine, including drugs in the penicillin, cephalosporin, and tetracycline families,” CSPI reported.

The white paper also noted that since 2000, 38 outbreaks tied to resistant pathogens sickened 20,064, hospitalized 3,108 and killed 27 — a count that includes an “enormous” 1985 outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium caused by milk, which sickened 16,659, hospitalized 2,777, and killed 18.

“Antibiotics are the crown jewels of modern medicine, and they are critical to treating diseases in both humans and farm animals,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “We must not continue to jeopardize the effectiveness of these drugs by using them recklessly for non-therapeutic uses on farms and in animal factories. Otherwise, consumers may face longer illnesses, more hospitalizations, and more fatalities when exposed to resistant strains of common foodborne pathogens.”

CSPI quoted World Health Organization’s position on the issue from last year: “WHO has long recognized that antibiotic use in food animals, which seems to outweigh antibiotic use for human therapy in many countries, contributes importantly to the public health problem of antibiotic resistance.”

In the United States, around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold are given to food animals each year.

At the briefings, public health advocates called on Congress to pass legislation to limit antibiotic use in agriculture, by passing the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), and asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take greater leadership on the issue.

“I would just love to see the United States taking a lead on this issue and show global leadership like we do on so many issues,” said Lance Price, an associate professor at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona. “On this one, we are lagging far behind the rest of the world. All the warning signs are there…and the good science is there and we’re doing nothing. It’s a shameful thing. I hope that we can turn this and start taking the lead.”