With half of all meat and poultry estimated to be contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand supports two key bills that would end the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animals slaughtered as food.
About 80 percent of all antibiotics sold by the pharmaceutical industry in the United States go to animals processed as food, which amounts to an estimated 30 million pounds of the drugs consumed by chickens, cows, pigs and sheep, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
People directly consume only a fraction of the antibiotics sold and are amid one of the biggest antibiotic resistance crises since the drugs were first commercialized after World War II.
Antibiotics have genuine infection-fighting uses in sick animals, experts say, but they play a role in fattening healthy ones bred as food. The farm industry has still other uses for the drugs in animals, which it has not revealed, Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other congressional leaders say.
They contend that indiscriminate use of the drugs in agriculture has consequences for people. One dangerous offshoot of antibiotic overuse in agriculture, according to a study last year, is a tenfold increase in multi-drug-resistant salmonella on chicken breasts, the most widely consumed meat product in the country.
"Antimicrobial resistance is a public health concern that needs to be adequately addressed," Gillibrand said in a statement. "Increased data collection, transparency and accountability are part of a comprehensive solution."
Antibiotic resistance has reached a crisis globally and drugs that used to handily cure infectious diseases no longer do so, doctors say.
Gillibrand authored a measure in May called the Antimicrobial Data Collection Bill to help ferret out undisclosed uses of the drugs. Late last week she became one of a bipartisan group of senators to support yet another measure to control antibiotic use in agriculture.
"She has been a real step-out leader on this issue," said Laura Rogers, director of the Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming for the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.
Pew, along with the American Medical Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has called on the agricultural industry to stop its abuse and overuse of antibiotics.
The number of antibiotics prescribed in hospitals and other medical settings can be tracked, Rogers said. Animal breeders, on the other hand, can buy potent antibiotics over the counter at feed stores. They do not have to account for the amount they've purchased or the number of animals that receive them. And while fattening is one use, routine administration of low-doses of the drugs is common.
Rogers said that practice drives the development of drug-resistant bacterial growth.
Worse, because the agricultural industry has not been forthcoming about all nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in farm animals, Rogers said, people are unwittingly exposed.
John Niccolai, president of Local 464-A, the union representing butchers at Long Island Stop and Shop supermarkets, said he thinks advocates are hyping the danger.
"Their story is overstated," Niccolai said Friday. "I spent many years running two slaughterhouses. I know about the procedures and it's a very hygienic practice.
"Everything is washed down and sanitized on a daily basis," he said, adding that the United States has the world's safest meat supply.
Niccolai acknowledges that contamination can occur. "Poultry and seafood [those] cause the worst kinds of infections," he said, referring to supermarket workers, not all of whom wear protective gloves.