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Column: A Fight that Food Activists Can Win: Limiting Antibiotics

Ask a dozen food activists what political change they want to see in 2013, and you’ll get a dozen different answers, maybe two dozen: Restrict sodium in packaged foods. Label genetically modified ingredients. End subsidies to big farms.

The variety of responses reflects just how much work still needs to be done as well as the diversity within the ranks of reformers. But it reveals a lack of focus — or, you might say, political maturity — that is likely to doom even the worthiest items on their wish lists.

“What is the food movement’s ‘ask’?” wondered Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the 2006 book that inspired a generation of food reformers.

I called Pollan and other big thinkers in food to figure out what issue they might rally around next year to bring about real change. It had to be big enough to unite the disparate elements in the food community: chefs, parents, nutritionists and farmers. It also needed to be a fight they might actually win.

There were several good ideas:

∎  Push the Obama administration to crack down on anti-competitive practices in the food and farming industry, or what Food and Water Watch’s Wenonah Hauter calls in her new book, America’s “Food-opoly.”

∎  Overhaul antiquated security regulations that make it difficult for small food businesses to raise capital and compete in the marketplace.

∎  Write food-safety rules to help small farms and food producers enter America’s food chain.

All are critical. But I couldn’t see any of those getting a bunch of tattooed chefs or idealistic college kids or suburban moms, let alone all of them, to lobby their member of Congress.

What did meet all the requirements was this: Get antibiotics off the farm and out of the food supply.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States — about 28.8 million pounds — are given to animals that are raised for food. Most of those animals are perfectly healthy, but they receive regular doses of medicine to make them grow faster, to make up for cramped conditions on industrial farms. Those two “benefits” are part of how producers keep the price of meat cheap.

The problem is that antibiotic overuse breeds drug-resistant superbugs that can move from animals to people in numerous ways, including via the meat we eat.

“We are really at a point in history where we are looking at the real loss of antibiotics,” said Laura Rogers, the director of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. “Most people can’t imagine what that would be like. Without antibiotics, routine surgeries aren’t safe. Transplants would be all but impossible. Strep throat moves from a minor worry to a major threat.”

Restricting antibiotics also would go a long way toward cleaning up factory farms. Without being able to dispense routine doses of antibiotics, farmers would have to change their practices, including cleaning pens and barns more often and giving the animals more space so they don’t get sick in the first place. The end of such intensive confinement would help reduce the size and number of manure lagoons, literally lakes of animal waste, that can be blamed for poisoning the air with greenhouse gases, such as methane, and for contaminating rivers and streams.

President Obama hasn’t talked much about antibiotics use on the farm. Nor has the first lady, who clearly knows that it is less politically risky to advise families to eat more fruits and vegetables than to support policies that could raise the price of meat.

But the administration appears interested in change. In 2012, the FDA issued draft guidance that asked the pharmaceutical industry to change labeling and marketing practices so that antibiotics are used only to treat sick animals. It was the first related action the FDA has taken since it first noted the dangers of adding antibiotics to animal feed 34 years ago. Without some push from inside the administration, political watchers say, the agency probably would have continued to stay mum.

But the FDA guidelines don’t go far enough. They allow plenty of wiggle room about what constitutes an appropriate use of antibiotics for disease prevention. And the guidelines are voluntary. Although there is an implicit threat of regulation, pharmaceutical companies could choose to ignore them.

Luckily for food-reform activists, there is a quicker way to get antibiotics off the farm: a bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA. Sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., it would require farmers to phase out the use of common antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention while allowing their use in the treatment of sick animals. The bill has been introduced in every session since 2007. But it has gone nowhere because the powerful meat and pharmaceutical industries have many friends on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

Slaughter plans to re-introduce the bill in the new session of Congress, and food reformers should support its passage. That means doing the usual things, such as writing letters to members of Congress and asking them to co-sign the bill, and supporting efforts like the Pew Campaign and Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of consumer, environmental and agricultural advocacy groups. But it also means that food-reform groups must develop alliances with powerful and, frankly, more experienced lobbies that hold greater sway on the Hill. In this case, that means forging relationships with health insurers, which will suffer mightily if America sacrifices the power of antibiotics for cheap meat.

“The food movement needs to make alliances. One is with the health-insurance industry,” says Pollan. “It’s the only way to make change.”

Over the past decade, the food movement, if you can call it a movement, has successfully made food an “issue.” But its solution, for the most part, has been to support an alternative food chain — critics allege mostly for its mostly elite members — rather than remaking the food chain that feeds millions, indeed most, Americans.

As Hauter, of Food and Water Watch, likes to say, we just can’t shop our way out of this. Only smart politics will yield smarter food.

Here’s to cleaner meat in 2013.

Jane Black, a former Washington Post Food section staffer now based in Brooklyn, writes Smarter Food monthly.