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Congresswoman Louise Slaughter

Representing the 25th District of New York

Rep. Slaughter, Only Microbiologist in Congress, Reintroduces Legislation to Save Antibiotics

March 24, 2015
Press Release

WASHINGTON – Today, Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter joined advocates, researchers, and even a former NFL player-turned-farmer to re-introduce the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) (H.R. 1552), the most important solution to prevent a nightmarish post-antibiotic future.

In his 1945 Nobel acceptance speech, Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, warned that overusing antibiotics would cause bacteria to mutate and become resistant to treatment, creating “superbugs” that were difficult or impossible to cure. That warning has become reality. More than two million Americans acquire an antibiotic-resistant infection every year, and at least 23,000 die from those infections – more than HIV/AIDS. The average hospitalization period is four days, creating $20-35 billion in excess direct health care costs each year in the U.S.  Globally, 700,000 die each year and the annual cost is estimated to be as high as $1.2 trillion.

All uses of antibiotics can contribute to resistance, but by far, the biggest offender is the factory farm system. Eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used on the farm, where they are fed mostly to healthy animals as a means to compensate for unsanitary and overcrowded conditions on the farm and to make the animals grow larger and faster. This unnecessary antibiotic treatment causes routine bacteria to mutate into untreatable superbugs, and can cause antibiotic-resistant infections in humans either through consumption of tainted food products, by transfer in soil or water runoff, or other means. Last year, an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg caused by tainted poultry from California producer Foster Farms sickened over 700 Americans across the country.

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a dire warning last year, saying that, “without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.” In addition, many types of surgery from oral surgery to organ and joint transplants will be too dangerous to perform, as antibiotics will be unable to protect patients from infections after operation.

“Antibiotic resistance is the most pressing public health crisis of our time. Both the American people and the U.S. government need to give this issue the attention it demands,” Rep. Slaughter said. “Right now, we are allowing the greatest medical advancement of the 20th century to be frittered away, in part because it’s cheaper for factory farms to feed these critical drugs to animals rather than clean up the deplorable conditions on the farm. The Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Congress have all failed to enact meaningful changes to the status quo, endangering countless Americans. My legislation would save eight critical classes of antibiotics from being routinely fed to healthy animals, and would reserve them only for sick humans and sick animals. If we want to prevent a nightmarish post-antibiotic future, citizens of this country need to speak up and demand that their leaders enact enforceable, verifiable limits on the use of antibiotics on the farm. Anything short of that, and we will only be biding our time until a major outbreak causes widespread devastation in this country and throughout the world.”

Congresswoman Slaughter, as the only microbiologist in Congress, has carried this legislation for the past four terms in office, and has been an original cosponsor since the bill was first introduced in 1999. In addition to advocating for her legislation, Congresswoman Slaughter has put pressure on federal regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enact enforceable, verifiable standards for the use of antibiotics on the farm. Despite an uptick in antibiotic resistant infections, increased public awareness and a growing chorus of voices demanding change, the FDA, USDA and Congress have failed to enact meaningful reforms, and have instead bowed to pressure by the pharmaceutical and agribusiness industries to maintain the status quo. Last Congress, 82 percent of lobbying reports filed on Rep. Slaughter’s bill were filed by entities hostile to regulation.

For decades, the FDA failed to take action on a 1977 commitment to enact limits on agricultural antibiotic use. In late 2013, the FDA finally issued a voluntary guidance, which has been widely panned as an ineffective fig-leaf solution designed to avoid criticism of the agency rather than fix the problem. According to the FDA’s Guidance 213, pharmaceutical producers are asked to voluntarily stop labeling antibiotics for use in “growth promotion,” by 2017. However, the drugs can still be used for “disease prevention,” a loophole that would allow the same level of antibiotic use to continue. In a revealing interview, the CEO of Zoetis, the world’s leading animal drug manufacturer, told the Wall Street Journal that the FDA’s guidance “will not have a significant impact on our revenues.” Despite drug makers’ claims that they are following the guidance, news reports have indicated that some drug makers have yet to comply, and are still marketing medically important antibiotics for growth promotion.

“The FDA’s voluntary guidance is an inadequate response to the overuse of antibiotics on the farm with no mechanism for enforcement and no metric for success,” Rep. Slaughter said in December 2013 when the guidance was released. “Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the FDA has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.”

Despite inaction from the U.S. government and relentless industry lobbying against regulation, momentum behind Rep. Slaughter’s legislation is growing. Over 50 city councils have passed resolutions supporting the bill, and over 450 medical, consumer advocacy, and public health groups have come out in support of legislation. Recently, in response to market trends and public advocacy, major fast food brands McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A, retailer Costco and a consortium of six major urban school districts have announced they will be eliminating chicken raised with medically-important antibiotics from their supply chain. They will join companies like Chipotle, Panera and Applegate Farms which have made using meat raised without medically-important antibiotics a major part of their business philosophy.

In addition to PAMTA, Congresswoman Slaughter will also soon introduce the Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency Act (DATA), which would provide better information on the amount and use of antibiotics and other antimicrobials given to animals raised for human consumption. Slaughter’s DATA bill will require drug manufacturers to obtain and provide better information to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on how their antimicrobial drugs are used in the food-producing animals for which they are approved.  It will also improve the timing and quality of the data that FDA publicly releases. Additionally, the DATA Act will require large-scale producers of poultry and livestock to submit data to FDA detailing the type and amount of antibiotics contained in the feed given to their animals.  The DATA Act will require FDA to coordinate with USDA to improve the collection of data on the use of antimicrobial drugs in or on food producing animals.

Lance Price, Professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University said: “Antibiotic resistance is an ecological challenge. Antibiotic use in human medicine and food-animal production work synergistically to fuel the superbug challenge. We cannot address this critical problem without addressing both. It’s time for the US to become a leader on antibiotic stewardship in the world. Passing this bill would show that we are serious about combating resistance and be the first real step towards a leadership position.”

Will Witherspoon, 12 year NFL veteran and owner of Shire Gate Farm Certified AWA grass-fed beef said: “It is not only possible to raise animals without sub-therapeutic antibiotics, it’s the only responsible way to do it. At Shire Gate Farm, we only use antibiotics on sick animals – not for growth promotion or disease prevention. As someone whose entire career is built on health, I’m proud to show that we can raise high-quality, healthy meat while preserving antibiotics for future generations.”

Patty Lovera, Assistant Director of Food & Water Watch said: “Letting the meat industry police itself when it comes to using antibiotics isn’t good enough,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch.  “Local governments across the country are calling for federal action on this critical public health threat. That’s why we need to pass PAMTA and rein in the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture."

Sujatha Jahagirdar, Stop Antibiotics Overuse Program Director at U.S. PIRG said: “Whether to treat a simple ear infection, or strep throat; or to combat a potentially life-threatening illness, like pneumonia or a post-surgery infection, millions of Americans rely on antibiotics to stay healthy.  In order to preserve these precious drugs for generations to come, it is essential to stop their overuse in animal agriculture.  Healthy animals don’t need antibiotics.  Sick people do.”