Thirty enthusiastic moms from across the United States gathered in Washington Tuesday to lobby for greater limits on antibiotics used in food animal production.
Organized by the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the “Supermoms against Superbugs” event included more than 50 meetings with House and Senate staff, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Each mother had a different story, a different reason for becoming an advocate. Some were chefs worried about quality and health, others pediatricians concerned about untreatable infections, but for many of the moms their activism began when a child or family member was sickened or killed by antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
For Melissa Lee, it began when her nine-month-old baby Ruby contracted antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg from meatballs made with ground turkey. It was the first time Ruby had tried turkey. “The first and the last,” said Lee.
Ruby was hospitalized for a week and then required an IV of antibiotics for another week at home. She was part of a nationwide outbreak that sparked the largest Class I meat recall in history. Contaminated ground turkey from a single Cargill plant in Arkansas was linked to the illnesses.
Luckily, Ruby, now nearly 2, recovered with no serious long-term complications, but the incident jolted Lee into action.
She said she had no idea that around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are given to food animals.
With Ruby in tow, Lee met with staff of three Oregon lawmakers, Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, to urge their support for stronger restrictions. She also sat down with Deputy Commissioner for Foods, Michael Taylor, to discuss the agency’s recent voluntary guidances on antibiotics in agriculture.
“There’s a lot of loopholes, and that’s putting it mildly,” said Lee, after the meeting. “When asked who’s going to enforce [the guidance], he said the vets are responsible for that. But how many of those vets own the farms or can be paid off?”
“I agree it’s a good baby step. Getting out there is a good thing, but it’s only a baby step,” she said. “It would be nice to see some real change.”
Several of the moms attending a luncheon at Pew on Tuesday echoed a similar sentiment, that the FDA’s recent action was good, but not good enough.
“I think it’s a great first step, but I’m very skeptical of that guidance,” said Everly Macario, a Chicagoan who lost her 1-year-old son Simon to a mysterious community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection in 2004. “The language says that antibiotics cannot be used for growth promotion… but I’m worried about all the ways to circumvent that.”
Macario’s loss has fueled her advocacy. In 2008, she and her colleagues at the University of Chicago Medical Center founded the MRSA Research Center and she now advocates on behalf of Pew’s Moms for Antibiotics Awareness project and the StopMRSANow Campaign.
“If we don’t all work together to reverse this trend of antibiotic resistance, more children are going to die, and that is just a fact,” said Macario at the luncheon for the “supermoms” at Pew on Tuesday. “I really believe we can solve this problem.”
Many in the room touted free market demand for antibiotic-free meats (the luncheon served Chipotle burritos) and the pending Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) as key for reversing the trend.
The National Pork Producers Council, which has vehemently opposed PAMTA and maintained that farmers uses antibiotics judiciously, took notice of the lobby day, tweeting: “#Supermoms against superbugs invade DC today. Farmers/ranchers: how do YOU use #antibiotics responsibly?”
NPPC also took out a full page ad in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, titled “The Real Facts About Antibiotics Use in Food Animals,” which ran on Tuesday.
“Antibiotics help animals grow healthier, improve animal well-being and provide safe food,” read the ad. “Strategic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture prevents disease and produces safer food. A side benefit of this use is faster growth.”
“Since antibiotics have been used in humans for more than 60 years and in livestock for about 50 years, if there was going to be an epidemic of resistance related to antibiotic use in agriculture, it would have occurred by now,” continued the ad, which cited Dr. Scott Hurd, a professor at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “The fact that it has not means that antibiotic use in animals is not a major risk to human health.”
Shelley Hearne, managing director of the Pew Health Group, sharply questioned the points made by NPPC, but told the audience of moms they should take the ad as a compliment.
“That this ad popped up today of all days is not a coincidence,” she said. “It’s because you’re here. Congratulations.”
Pictured: Melissa Lee with her daughter Ruby at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, DC. Photo by Helena Bottemiller.