U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter pursued microbiology after her sister's death from childhood pneumonia. In 1953, while earning a master's degree in public health, she wrote her thesis on the overuse of antibiotics.
Since then, numerous studies have proven that the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has given rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These bacteria sicken an estimated two million Americans each year and kill 23,000.
In April, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are not just a future threat—they threaten us now, and they could affect every region of the world. The WHO report showed glaring gaps in the reporting and sharing of data among countries, and we need that data to slow this emerging health crisis.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has been vocal about the proliferation of bacteria strong enough to outwit our toughest antibiotics, calling them "superbugs" and "nightmare bacteria."
Of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. each year, 80 percent are used in animals meant for human consumption. More than 70 percent of them are critical to fighting infections in humans, including penicillin, bacitracin, tetracyclines, macrolides, and sulfonamides.
And Rep. Slaughter wants the practice to stop in order to protect the lives and health of Americans.
Politics stall antibiotics ban in congress
Congress’ only microbiologist has introduced a bill to eliminate the routine use of antibiotics in livestock, but it has never made it to the floor for a vote.
"Let me put it this way, if we don't stop this, more antibiotics will become useless to us. Then you're not going to see joint replacements, organ transplants, or dental work," she told Healthline from her office in the U.S. Capitol. "Some doctors say that strep throat, in 10 years, could be fatal. It should terrify every man, woman, and child in the country."
Besides being the only microbiologist in Congress, Slaughter—a Democrat who has represented the state of New York since 1987—is, at 84, the oldest woman serving in the House of Representatives.
One of her most important, science-based pieces of enacted legislation is the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). The law prohibits the consideration of genetic information in employment screening and for determining insurance coverage so people cannot be discriminated against based on their genetic predisposition to disease. Slaughter had to introduce the bill at seven congressional sessions before it passed in 2008.
"Not a lot of people around here would stick with a bill for 14 years," she said. "It should have passed in two, but new science is difficult for some people to grasp."
The science she wants other members of the House to grasp now is that the way animals are being raised in the U.S. is helping to breed bacteria that kill Americans. She vows not to retire until her new bill, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA, is passed.
"I'm right into it," she said. "I have to get this thing passed."
The main roadblocks preventing the bill from passing, Slaughter said, are "money and ignorance and old practices."
This year, Pres. Barack Obama mentioned antibiotic resistance in his State of the Union address and added $30 million to the budget to fund monitoring and research into drug-resistant bacteria.
However, the administration has not addressed the underlying problem of antibiotic overuse in animals, despite the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledged in 1977 that this practice could pose a public health threat.
More than 80 percent of swine farms, cattle feedlots, and sheep farms in the U.S. routinely deliver antimicrobial drugs in feed and water for growth or health purposes. In 2011, only about 6 percent of cattle feedlots checked for antibiotic residue before shipping the animals off for slaughter, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Antibiotics are often used to prevent disease in animals kept in tight, unsanitary quarters at factory-style farms across the U.S. And the more often these animals are exposed to low doses of antibiotics, the more chances bacteria have to learn defenses to protect themselves.
Armed with a growing body of scientific evidence, groups like WHO, the American Medical Association, the Infectious Disease Society of America, the Consumers Union, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and about 450 other organizations support legislation that would eliminate routine antibiotic use in animal feed and water.
Slaughter's PAMTA bill and its sister bill in the Senate have several provisions designed to preserve the effectiveness of medically important antibiotics. The bill would:
- amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act so that drug manufacturers must prove that the nontherapeutic use of their antibiotics won't contribute to antibiotic resistance
- phase out the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed and water
- prohibit the use of antibiotics in animals that aren't sick
- make it illegal to routinely give animals antibiotics for disease prevention
- ensure that veterinarians administering antibiotics have a valid doctor-farmer-animal relationship, and require vets to inspect animal living areas.
"If those animals get sick, our bill says treat them," Slaughter said.
Slaughter introduced PAMTA to Congress in 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013. Despite widespread support from medical and scientific experts and 70 Democrat cosponsors as of the end of May, the bill has never had a hearing in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's health subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Joseph Pitts, (R-Pa.)
According to GovTrack, a data-tracking website not affiliated with the U.S. government, PAMTA has a 1 percent chance of ever being enacted. A similar bill in the Senate, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), has 0 percent chance of becoming law, according to the site.
Another concern is about how antibiotic use is documented. Though four-fifths of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to animals meant for human consumption, there's little public information available to researchers. That's why Slaughter and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) introduced the Delivering Antibiotic Transparency in Animals (DATA) Act, which would require more complete information on how the antibiotics are being used.
It, too, has a 1 percent chance of ever being enacted, according to GovTrack.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) one of PAMTA's cosponsors, says it's tough to get consumer-protection legislation through the House if the bill involves agriculture.
The politics of an emerging health crisis
Despite a scientific consensus on the issue, reducing antibiotic use in agriculture remains a tough political sell.
"The right to know is seen as an offensive action," she told Healthline. "Politics plays a big role in common sense."
Other members of Congress did not respond to requests for comment.
When bills have been introduced that would change how antibiotics are used in food-producing animals, the agriculture and pharmaceutical industries have extended their well-funded lobbying arms to push back against the proposed legislation.
Slaughter recognizes that PAMTA won't pass during this congressional session. The 113th Congress, led by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), is on track to pass the fewest bills of any Congress since 2001. A bill cannot be voted on unless the Speaker calls it to the floor.
When PAMTA was last filed, in 2013, lobbying groups submitted 225 reports in response, 195 of which Slaughter considers "hostile." As for her colleagues in Congress, Slaughter said that most of them side with the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries.
"That's campaign contributions. It may be that some people are born with an aversion to any kind of regulation," she said with a laugh, "and they all get elected to the House of Representatives. But that's the only kind of thing I can think of."
According to research from the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a nonprofit group that investigates the role of money in politics, the National Beef Packing Company and the National Pork Producers Council together have spent $430,000 in direct lobbying against Slaughter's legislation.
The American Farm Bureau, the largest lobbying arm of the farm industry, spent part of its $3.3 million lobbying dollars in the first three quarters of 2013 to oppose "an effort both through legislation and regulation to limit the use of animal antibiotics based on emotion and no credible peer reviewed science," CRP reported.
Legislating in the Face of Opposition
Agricultural and pharmaceutical lobbies have spent big money to fight antibiotics legislation.
Other organizations, such as the Animal Health Institute, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation, the Food Marketing Institute, and major pharmaceutical companies like Merck & Co., Eli Lilly & Co., and Elanco Animal Health, which manufacture antibiotics used by meat producers, have also spent money lobbying against the bill.
Agricultural lobbyists have asserted that antibiotic use in animals does not contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans. Some lobbying groups, like the Animal Health Institute, say that Denmark's ban on the routine administration of antibiotics in animal feed, much like PAMTA's objective, was merely a political move.
"They lie," Slaughter said. "God help it, they're the same people who told you that we could not get swine flu, that that kind of transfer from an animal to a human being was not going to happen. Now we know that it does."
Though PAMTA may not be getting anywhere in Congress, the bill does have support in other circles.
Besides the more than 450 health agencies that support PAMTA, other organizations are seeing the need for strict regulation of antibiotic use in agriculture.
In November, the New York State Congress of Parents and Teachers passed a resolution supporting PAMTA, as well as initiatives that would encourage local school districts to purchase meat and poultry products sourced from antibiotic-free animals, except when the animals had received antibiotics as treatment for disease.
Individual cities are passing similar resolutions. So far, those cities include Madison, Wis.; Redhook, N.J.; Seattle; St. Paul, Minn.; Cleveland; and Providence, R.I.
Growing support for stronger antibiotic restrictions
Despite limited progress on the federal level, smaller government entities are passing resolutions in support of PAMTA.
Seattle city councilmember Nick Licata said that the city's resolution was important because "despite ongoing acknowledgement of a significant public health threat, the federal government still largely relies on voluntary compliance to reduce [antibiotic] overuse in livestock."
Earlier this year, California assembly member Kevin Mullin (D-22) introduced legislation that would ban the routine addition of antibiotics to animal feed. The day it was set for a vote in the state's agriculture committee, Mullin withdrew the bill because of lack of support, according to his aide.
While serving as health commissioner of New York City in 1992, Margaret Hamburg acknowledged the threat of antibiotic resistance, stating, "If drug resistance is not curbed we could quickly find ourselves back in a world before modern medications were available."
Hamburg, now commissioner of the FDA, is often criticized for the agency's voluntary guidelines on antibiotic use. The latest nonbinding measure, Guidance 213, requests that antibiotics used on food-producing animals and also used as human medication be placed under veterinary supervision within three years. There is a broad exemption that allows for the routine administration of medically important antibiotics to animals for disease prevention.
Guidance 213 has been heavily criticized, and Slaughter is one of its loudest antagonists.
"We are making strides in research, we're making strides with these city councils taking a stand, but we're not making strides in the FDA, which is the single agency that can stop this overuse" she said. "And their latest move was to give them three more years. Voluntarily. There's no penalty. My greatest concern is that there's no force behind it and there never has been."
Analyzing the policies surrounding agriculture in America, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future concluded, "History has shown that voluntary commitments to change from industry are typically unmonitored, and the lack of industry transparency masks reversals of promises of more sustainable practices."
Slaughter says she'll re-introduce PAMTA at the next congressional session, with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hopefully as Speaker of the House. She says that's when PAMTA can have its day on the hill.
"As far as I'm concerned, and I think most of my colleagues feel the same way, the FDA and USDA are there to protect the health of the citizens of the United States of America," she said. "Now in the overuse of antibiotics, anyone in science can tell you that's a stupid thing to do because they are probably the best breakthrough in healthcare in the world. Ever."
What can you do to help prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Find out in the final installment of our series. Continue to the final article»
Brian Krans is an award-winning investigative reporter and former Senior Writer at Healthline.com. He was part of the two-person team that launched Healthline News in January 2013. Since then, his work has been featured on Yahoo! News, the Huffington Post, Fox News and other outlets. Prior to coming to Healthline, Brian was a staff writer at the Rock Island Argus and The Dispatch newspapers where he covered crime, government, politics, and other beats. His journalism experience has taken him to the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast and into the U.S. Capitol while Congress was in session. He is a graduate of Winona State University, which has named a journalism award after him. Besides his reporting, Brian is the author of three novels. He is currently touring the country to promote his latest book, "Assault Rifles & Pedophiles: An American Love Story." When not traveling, he lives in Oakland, Calif. He has a dog named Friday.