Concerns about the routine use of antibiotics in livestock production is rising among consumers, prompting an increase in both market demand and supply of meat labeled as “antibiotic-free.”
But to date, public policy makers have been slow to respond to evidence that the 30 million pounds of antibiotics applied to farm animals — about 80 percent of all of these drugs sold for any purpose in the United States — are spawning a dangerous increase in antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that are killing thousands of people and sickening many times that number each year.
There are, however, many groups and individual citizens who are working to get elected officials in Washington, D.C., to pay greater attention to these and other issues with our food system that are health-related. One of these is the Food Policy Council, a coalition of Good Food activists, environmental and anti-hunger groups, food industry figures, and others, which publishes a scorecard of the voting records of members of Congress on a range of issues related to food production and access.
The Food Policy Council also holds a series of events around the nation to raise awareness of its agenda. One of these was held Wednesday (Oct. 8) at Uncommon Ground restaurant, on Chicago’s far North Side, which is a longtime leader in promoting locally and sustainably produced food and is well-known for having the first federally certified rooftop organic farm.
Claire Benjamin, managing director of Food Policy Action, explained the purpose of the group’s legislative scorecard. “We have to figure out a way to connect the dots for members of Congress,” Benjamin said. “We not only have to have these issues make sense, but we have to make them political. We have to say to our elected officials that these issues are issues we vote on.”
The theme of the event was promoting support for parallel legislative proposals in Congress to limit the use of antibiotics on livestock. The House version, H.R. 1150, is titled the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA; the Senate version, S. 1256, is the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act, or PARA.
Among those speaking on behalf of the legislation was Kerri McClimen, a consultant who supports the Pew Charitable Trust’s Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, a leading voice in efforts to reduce antibiotic use in agriculture. McClimen is a lead organizer of Pew’s Supermoms Against Superbugs project, which seeks to raise consciousness of this issue.
“The worst thing is for a restaurateur or a member of Congress to say, ‘Nobody is really talking to me about that.’ We are,” McClimen said.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, whose Illinois congressional district includes the site of Wednesday’s event, also spoke in favor of the PAMTA legislation. She said the best way to get lawmakers’ attention is present them with the real-life stories of people whose lives have been adversely affected by antibiotic-resistant infections. “We should talk face-to-face with these legislators. And to the extent that we can tell real people’s stories, I think you can have an important effect,” said Schakowsky, whose op-ed piece on the issue was published in the Chicago Sun-Times.
The program included one such story, that of Everly Macario, whose young son died 10 years ago after he contracted an antibiotic-resistant case of the food-borne illness know as MRSA. Macario said she had never previously heard of MRSA, even though she holds a doctorate from the Harvard School of Public Health. “I felt I could channel my grief by helping to raise awareness of the issue,” Macario said.
The audience included Sam Spitz, a recent college graduate who as a teenager survived his own bout with antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter. That incident prompted his parents, Jeffrey and Jennifer Spitz, to produce a documentary titled Food Patriots.
While the movie deals with serious issues, it eschews the shock value of many films critical of practices in our current food system, instead focusing on efforts around the country by individuals and groups who are fostering the growth of the Good Food movement, and the Spitz family’s often humorous efforts to raise chickens and grow their own food garden at their suburban Chicago home.