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Unhealthy practice needs limits; Slaughter is waging a lonely battle to reduce use of antibiotics in livestock

For the past few years, Rep. Louise Slaughter has been asking a question that should be on the tip of every American's tongue: "What's in the beef?"

Drawing on the question in the old Wendy's hamburger commercial in which diminutive octogenarian actress Clara Peller asked competitors, "Where's the beef?," Slaughter offers a similar, but more important, question about our food.

The legislation addressing Slaughter's concern should become law, although it is sadly going nowhere in the Republican-led House.

The bill would prevent farmers from overusing seven classes of antibiotics that are important for human health. Administering antibiotics to promote growth is a common practice on factory farms. The widespread use of antibiotics in healthy livestock has been blamed for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and other germs in humans.

A microbiologist by training, the only one in Congress, the Fairport Democrat has just sent a letter to more than 60 food companies asking that they disclose their policies on the use of antibiotics in the meat and poultry they sell.

Chipotle Mexican Grill Chairman and CEO Steve Ellis has proved to be a vocal supporter of Slaughter's efforts, even speaking last December at a Capitol Hill forum called "Keep Antibiotics Working." The forum was sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Ideally, all parties should be willing to answer what should be a simple question if, nothing else, to allay any concerns about possible harmful effects of giving healthy animals antibiotics on a routine basis.

But life isn't a TV commercial and the fact that Slaughter has been pushing her Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act since 2007 without success illustrates how uphill a battle she is waging.

Farmers, including the state's major farm group, are against the bill. Indeed, they should be the ones promoting more information on healthy practices in the whole farm-to-table discussion. Sadly, that's not the case.

In her letter, Slaughter talked about outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant salmonella associated with contaminated meat and poultry this year alone that cannot be treated with common antibiotics. Antibiotic-resistant infections are estimated to cost the U.S. health care system in excess of $20 billion every year.

In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration released data revealing the 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States were sold for use in food animals, and most of these antibiotics were fed to healthy animals.

The New York Farm Bureau correctly claims that its occasional use of preventive antibiotics is less harmful than the widespread practices out West, and that the judicious use of antibiotics is sometimes the right action. But giving antibiotics to healthy animals has a domino effect in the food chain.

Slaughter recently won a different long-running battle when Congress approved a ban on insider trading by members of Congress. She first proposed that legislation in 2006. We hope her current fight over antibiotics in food doesn't last as long. America wins when her bill is signed into law.