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Stopping Superbugs: Time for Congress and Industry to Catch Up With American Consumers

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With public approval of Congress at a nadir, Americans' frustration with our democracy is no secret. Perhaps nowhere is there more of a disconnect than between parents' concern about food safety, and the lack of reform in how meat is produced and processed.

Released this week, a new poll of more than 2,200 American adults highlights the problem.

The poll, commissioned by Applegate, a New Jersey-based producer of natural and organic meats and cheeses, looked at public attitudes around the commonplace use of antibiotics on U.S. farms producing hams, turkeys, chicken breasts, and other meats.

Antibiotic sales data, collected from drug companies in 2009 by the Food and Drug Administration, shows the frightening reality: 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. for any reason are used in animals -- nearly three-quarters of which are given in feed to livestock and poultry that aren't sick. For decades, feed antibiotics have been FDA-approved to promote growth using less feed, and to offset the infection risk from raising animals in too-close confinement. Unfortunately, the 2010 data show farm use of antibiotics in the U.S. only keeps rising.

According to the poll, of 2,211 surveyed Americans:
  • 71 percent believe that antibiotic overuse and misuse is causing antibiotic resistance and a human health crisis. In that, they agree with the USDA, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the American Medical Association and others.
  • 75 percent want government to act to restrict the use of antibiotics in the animal farms that produce those turkeys, hams and other meats.
  • Among 573 parents surveyed, support for government action is even higher. Nearly four in five (79 percent) both believe that antibiotic misuse is causing a health crisis and favor government restrictions on their use in animal agriculture.

Now, contrast consumer concern with overall government inaction. The FDA has never succeeded in taking an already approved feed antibiotic off the market. It proposed eliminating penicillin and tetracycline in feed in 1977, but Congress forced FDA to abandon the proposal.

One exception to inaction is the steadfast work of Rep. Louise Slaughter, the only microbiologist in Congress and one of the most important public health champions around this issue. She is the lead author of legislation that would require the companies that make and profit from the sale of antibiotics added to animal feed that are also important to human medicine to demonstrate that they are safe, according to modern standards, and will not worsen the epidemic of antibiotic resistance.

Rep. Slaughter also sponsored a Dec. 13 briefing which the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy hosted on Capitol Hill, titled "Keeping Antibiotics Working: Company Successes in Marketing 'Antibiotic-free' Meat and Poultry."

Succeed they have. Rep. Slaughter was joined by Founder and CEO Steve Ells of Chipotle Mexican Grill and Founder and CEO Stephen McDonnell of Applegate. The latter commissioned the polling mentioned above. They were joined in turn by Paul Willis and Russ Kremer, two hog producers who don't use antibiotics. The changing preferences of consumers appear to be driving results at both companies.

Chipotle's Ells reported the company now buys 100 million pounds per year of meat from chickens, hogs and beef cattle raised without antibiotics. He also said consumers are looking for something higher in quality than conventional fast food, and that's driving the addition of 150 new Chipotle restaurants in the coming year, on top of the 1,200 existing outlets. Chipotle buys its antibiotic-free pork from Niman Ranch, which includes hundreds of family farmers in Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Indiana, New York, Maryland, Virginia and Maryland. Since 2008, public shares in Chipotle are up more than 400 percent in price. Not too shabby.

McDonnell said burgeoning consumer demand is why private Applegate has grown 25 to 30 percent every year since its founding. Applegate sources its turkey, hams and other meat products from more than 1,000 farms, including abroad; U.S. production alone is insufficient to meet its demand.

McDonnell is asking consumers to become part of the conversation, view videos about antibiotic resistance and sign a petition on Facebook. The petition urges President Barack Obama to make good on his 2008 campaign pledge to curb the overuse of antibiotics on industrial farms in order to help stem the emergence of deadly superbugs.

Policymakers in Washington continue to struggle with the demand for jobs to respond to the stagnant economy. Here, at least, appears to be one economic sector that is growing quickly. What the poll of consumer concerns suggests is that this is no accident: People are voting with their dollars for meat raised without antibiotics. Both Rep. Slaughter and the General Accounting Office make the point that consumers in countries buying American meat exports appear to be making the same demands.

Today, American farmers raising animals without antibiotics do so despite policies that point them in the opposite direction. With this handicap, who will win out in the race to feed the global consumer who increasingly wants their meat antibiotic free? If it is to be our local farmer, then American policymakers better pay heed -- and fast.

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