08/30/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

"Superbug" Health Crisis Demonstrates Need for Food Labeling


"Superbugs" have the capacity to turn simple ailments into life-threatening conditions and may pose the largest potential health crisis in America. That is why this June the national nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a petition calling upon the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to require accurate labeling on meat and poultry products that come from animals dosed with antibiotics. Factory farms, producers of most meat, eggs and dairy products in the US, are a major culprit in creating these antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These animal factories administer mass doses of antibiotics to cows, pigs, chickens and other animals overcrowded into filthy and inhumane conditions to suppress the spread of disease. The result is dangerous bacteria resistant to all forms of antibiotics. The Animal Legal Defense Fund is fighting back with the first consumer-oriented legal petition aimed at alerting the public to the health hazards posed by antibiotic abuse on factory farms.

Political leaders like Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and a coalition of public interest groups like the Sierra Club, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, and Friends of Family Farmers, sent a formal letter last month asking the USDA to accept our petition. Rep. Slaughter also reintroduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (PAMTA) along with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). A bipartisan-backed companion bill in the Senate, the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (2013), directs the FDA to phase out the routine overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and was introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein, Susan Collins, and Kirsten Gillibrand.

In a letter to FSIS, Rep. Slaughter called upon the agency to adopt the labeling standards proposed in ALDF's petition. "I am deeply troubled that federal agencies have not taken meaningful action to protect the public health, alert customers to these dangers, and implement labeling that would empower customers to choose safer, antibiotic-free products," Slaughter said. "ALDF's proposed labeling would help to alleviate some of these concerns."

Why is such a broad coalition of organizations and leaders backing the Animal Legal Defense Fund's petition? Research suggests antibiotic-resistant bacteria likely originate from farmed animals given antibiotics at "sub-therapeutic" levels--intended to prevent, rather than treat, illnesses. 80% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are administered to farmed animals, nearly all at sub-therapeutic levels. Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), called the need for new, more effective antibiotics "a huge crisis worldwide."

The Animal Legal Defense Fund believes consumers have a right to know what goes into their food, especially when the implications for a public health crisis loom so large. Ultimately, this superbug health crisis, and its link to the horrific way large-scale agriculture treats animals, points to an urgent need for us to reconsider the disastrous consequences of factory farming and the way we eat.