12/22/2011 11:09 am ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012

What's in Your Christmas Ham?

Before you sit down to your holiday ham this season, think on this -- nearly half of pigs on U.S. farms carry MRSA, a "super bug" that causes all kinds of tough-to-treat infections. It's not just pork putting you and your family at risk -- nearly half of all retail meat and poultry in the U.S. is contaminated with potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the past few months, 136 people were stricken with food poisoning after eating ground turkey contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg.

Where do these deadly pathogens come from? Decades of research has shown that daily dosing of antibiotics to healthy food animals is largely to blame for the rise in drug-resistant bacteria. Nearly 80 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. go to agriculture -- and most of these drugs treat healthy animals. The discovery of antibiotics was one of our greatest medical achievements. To squander these life-saving drugs on healthy animals is irresponsible. We don't sprinkle antibiotics on children's cereal every morning to prevent illness. Why allow industrial farms to do the equivalent with animal feed?

Disappointingly, the U.S. has fallen behind as other countries, such as Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, and South Korea, have implemented bans on antibiotics as growth promoters in food-animals. Just last month, the European Union unveiled a five-year plan to combat antibiotic resistance, and has called for the judicious use of antibiotics in agriculture. In stark contrast, our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has delayed and de-prioritized important measures to regulate antibiotics and ensure food product safety. If American meat and poultry producers want to trade with Europe, the U.S. will have to raise its standards.

Unfortunately, efforts to regulate antibiotic use in food-animals have met with enormous resistance. The president of the National Pork Producers Council has said, "the risk of antibiotics use in animals in causing antibiotic resistance in humans is very low, and there are no scientific studies that prove a link." Yet according to the World Health Organization, scientific studies have shown that antibiotic use in animals results in "infections that would not have otherwise occurred, increased frequency of treatment failures (in some cases death) and increased severity of infections."

Russ Kremer's story highlights the dangers of antibiotic misuse. Mr. Kremer, President of Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative, contracted a bacterial infection on his family farm. After several unsuccessful rounds of antibiotic treatment he realized his illness was the same infection plaguing his hogs. After recovering, Mr. Kremer chose to stop dosing his hogs daily with antibiotics. As he put it, "I did it because I was so remorseful that I had been doing something wrong to society that I quit. It was the right thing to do. It was extremely sustainable for me, I didn't have to pay those $16,000 a year drug bills. And it's become one of the most satisfying lifestyles you can imagine, now dealing with healthy happy pigs."

Successful companies such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Niman Ranch, and Applegate Farms have taken the lead in sustainable agriculture. But the truth is that antibiotic use in agriculture is a problem for all of us -- no matter what kind of meat we buy or even if we choose not to buy meat at all. Every year, two million Americans acquire bacterial infections in the hospital, and 100,000 die from them. Seventy percent of these infections are resistant to drugs commonly used to treat them.

Congress must do more. That's why I introduced The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for treatment of human disease. PAMTA phases out the non-therapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in livestock without limiting the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals.

The rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria is a looming threat to public health on a global scale, and it is only getting worse. It is time for Congress to stand with the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Sciences, and do something to address the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. The American people deserve no less.