Rep. Slaughter: How misguided agricultural practices are killing Americans and affecting foreign trade

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter says lax regulation of antibiotics given to farm animals is killing humans and affecting our trade with other countries. Could Denmark be a model for the U.S.?
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter is serving her 12th term in Congress as a Representative for the 28th Congressional District of New York. She is a member of the House Democratic Leadership and the first woman to chair the House Rules Committee.

In 2009, she introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) in the House of Representatives, which would phase out the use of antibiotics in farm animals to promote growth and to compensate for crowded and unsanitary conditions. I recently talked to Rep. Slaughter about meat, bacteria, and one Western country that is setting a good example for us.

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report from the Inspector General’s Office looks at the lack of quality control at cattle processing plants and how the food supply is not being adequately monitored for harmful residues. How did we get to this point, where federal agencies have allowed our meats to become so contaminated?

In my view, as a microbiologist, I’ve been very disappointed in the previous administration, where science seemed not to play much of a role. I know that many people were surprised by the idea that salmonella could get into spinach and that it could kill someone. But there are very lax rules on what [goes] into the water; how the crops are growing together; the spinach being grown near runoff from the cattle barn. There’s no concern about sanitation. It’s been awful. It’s another case where corporations are in charge.

As a scientist, you look at food safety with a different perspective than your colleagues in Congress. What would you like them—and all Americans--to understand?

I would explain to them what E. coli is and that it’s ever-present. E. coli and MRSA [methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] have become so resistant to antibiotic treatment. We’re losing numbers of people every year to infections who should not be dying. I want to make this point very clear: These animals are not ill. [The antibiotics] are in their daily feed. Farmers can buy antibiotics in 50-pound bags. Seventy percent of antibiotics today are being fed to nonhumans--fed on a daily basis to poultry, beef and pigs, and it makes no sense. Someone has pointed out it’s like putting penicillin on our children’s Cheerios every morning. You wonder how a policy like that was ever allowed.

How serious has this problem become?

The antibiotic issue is very serious. I’ve had several friends who have died from hospital infections that in older times would have been taken care of by antibiotics. There are seven classes of antibiotics we’re talking about that are critically important to human beings.

What I’m concerned about is what we’re doing to human beings with this residue on meat in grocery stores. This is what we’re feeding people. I’m also concerned about the trade loss. Other countries are cutting out meat from the U.S. because of this. Russia gave up chicken.

Have you been to farms to see the way animals are treated?

I’ve not been on a farm in a while. It’s hard to ever get away. But we’re going to Denmark to see how well they’re doing without all the antibiotics.

What’s going on in Denmark?

In Denmark they have stopped using antibiotics. Some of our Members went to Denmark and said [cutting antibiotics] wasn’t effective. I think the facts show that’s not the case. The government of Denmark took an unusual step and wrote a letter to the Speaker and me, giving us the facts and inviting us to come and see for ourselves. We hope to go sometime in May.

As the only Member of Congress holding a master’s degree in public health, you had a unique perspective on the health care battle. Now that it’s behind us, what are your thoughts on how it evolved?

I think that I have never in my lifetime seen anything so maligned and so many untruths told--from death squads to ideas of a government takeover. Now people understand. It’s a phenomenal bill. As people are learning what’s in it, they realize they were lied to.

Click here to read a recent op-ed in The New York Times: Cows on Drugs, by Donald Kennedy, a former commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration.

Click here to read by Q&A with Chipotle founder and PAMTA supporter Steve Ells.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards