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Q&A: US Rep. Louise Slaughter Discusses Antibiotic Resistance

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
  • Mike_Mychajlonka_PhD

    Consumers need information before they can become empowered. One indication of how little information consumers get is reflected by the number of times Bill Marler and others have asked, in print, why it is that public disclosure of the source of an outbreak is withheld for so long. Another example of keeping consumers in the dark was when the Dr. Oz television show aired a story about arsenic in apple juice, FDA’s first response was a debacle, followed by an apology. Not to be ignored as an example of treating consumers like the proverbial mushroom is the whole “Just Cook It” argument still active in the meat industry, which conveniently blames the consumer for getting sick from contaminated meat because they “obviously” didn’t cook it properly. Producers of leafy greens obviously can’t invoke the cooking argument for lettuce and spinach so they substitute a washing requirement, as does FDA even though washing is known to provide only a limited benefit. The case with antibiotics is complicated by their very complexity. Around the world, physicians are licensed to prescribe them, but have repeatedly been shown not to understand them: ” . . . the physician, the very person bearing the single greatest responsibility for prescribing, does not seem to have perceived the importance of resistance and its link to inappropriate use” (Family Practice, 2011, October, pp. 1-9). Certain pathogens and toxins are recognized as adulterants in food. Is there any regulation that views the presence of an antibiotic resistant organism in food as an adulterant? Co-selection of resistance is almost universally ignored by industry, even as that industry repeatedly makes the comment that agricultural Narasin use is harmless despite published reports that its use co-selects Vancomycin resistance in enterococci (VRE). Only the consumer has the power of purse. They need to know what they are buying.

  • adeclercq

    Ms. Slaughter drives me insane. Note she says “that we believe”. I agree she probably hasn’t been on a farm…plus she got her degree in 1956. Things have changed since then. She completely ignores the human side and that most antibiotic resistance deaths come from hospitals/community aquired. Is the industry perfect? No. Could we improve? Yes. But to point the finger just at agriculture is just plain irresponsible, and dangerous.

  • Kick

    Excuse me, but I’d rather not eat chickens bloated with hormones, fed on GE corn and other chemicals, that then are soaked in clorox to kill pathogenic bacteria, before being wrapped and sent to market.