The 2011 CHOW 13

Louise Slaughter: Meat Reform

In the last five years, asking where your meat comes from has become as acceptable as asking where the recycling bin is located. You can blame Michael Pollan, who first stirred up squeamishness about factory feedlots in his 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma. Then came Robert Kenner's 2008 documentary Food, Inc., offering more visceral proof of most food animals' short, hellish lives. The latest, arguably most politically powerful voice against the evils of industrial meat is Louise Slaughter.

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SCULPTED ILLUSTRATION LIZ LOMAX

A Democratic Congresswoman from western New York with the biscuits-and-gravy twang of Loretta Lynn (she grew up in rural Kentucky), Slaughter is trying to stop the rampant overuse of feedlot antibiotics.

Here's why the issue is scary: Over the past decade, Big Meat has pumped an increasing volume of antibiotics into cows, pigs, and chickens—animals that might be perfectly healthy, but that grow faster on drugs, yielding cheaper and cheaper meat. Trouble is, shoveling tetracycline and penicillin down the throats of food animals is creating a class of bacteria known as superbugs, organisms evolving to resist antibiotics. Our desire for a cheap cheeseburger is threatening to return us to the dark ages before penicillin was invented. But lots of folks are getting rich off the practice: Antibiotic use in livestock feed accounts for four-fifths of all antibiotics administered in the United States. Feeding livestock drugs is literally a cash cow not only for those selling meat, but also for the pharmaceutical companies.

Slaughter's bill, known as the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), authored in 2009 and reintroduced this year, has a sponsor in the Senate, California's Dianne Feinstein. There's a good chance President Obama would sign it, if it ever reached his desk. Even though in John Boehner's Congress PAMTA probably won't come up for debate anytime soon, the bill's mere existence gives the issue a major stamp of legitimacy, moving it to the forefront of the ethical meat debate. —J.B.

You grew up in the rural South before America's huge meat industry existed. Has that influenced your perspective?
My family didn't raise animals ourselves, but when our neighbors butchered the cows or pigs we could get fresh meat. It was not only supermarket shopping for us, at all.

Has looking into the meat industry changed what you eat?
Absolutely. One of the things that we do—and my family is about half vegetarian, though not me (I would like to be, but I just can't!)—we seek out beef and other meats that are hormone-free. And I think like most Americans we're cutting back on the amount of meat that we eat. That's a good thing.

Think PAMTA has any chance of passing in the current political climate?
Food safety is critically important—it's appalling to me that people could die eating cantaloupe. We should not be getting resistant bacteria from the overuse of antibiotics. [These drugs are] one of the great uses of medicine, and to throw [them] in feed as an everyday occurrence is irresponsible. It is true that the House is so different now; we do what we can. But we'll get it done—we don't take no for an answer up here.

NEXT: TOM PETERS