When you see a gathering of white coated chefs around Chicago it’s usually as part of a food festival or some gala dinner. But Tuesday morning some of the city’s top cooks and restaurateurs gathered at City Hall to voice their concerns about public health and the way animals are raised in this country.
They were there to support a non-binding City Council resolution to support long-stalled Congressional bills on antibiotics. Known as PAMPTA and PARA, they would stop American farmers from using certain classes of antibiotics on healthy animals. The practice is meant to promote growth and prevent disease.
The world’s leading health authorities believe that overuse of antibiotics in hospital and farm settings is leading to the rise of “superbugs”, or bacterial infections that can no longer be cured with antibiotics.
Long-time Chicago restaurateur and co-founder of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition Ina Pinkney introduced the long list of scientists and doctors who would speak at the finance committee hearing on the resolution later that day.
But she also shared a personal story of a friend who recently gave birth to twins.
“One baby went home and the other one was sick and they found MRSA in her nose as a nine-day-old,” Pinkney said. “Then you have to say that things are not OK.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over 2 million Americans are infected by so-called superbugs each year and and more than 23,000 die.
“The antibiotic issue is just out of control,” said Dan Rosenthal, whose restaurant group owns seven Chicago eateries including Sopraffina and Ciccheti.
“We are creating, in our industrial meat complex, the perfect environment to create antibiotic resistant bacteria...They are found in our meat and water supply and system and what happens is we get to a situation where antibiotics are no longer effective.”
Rosenthal is so concerned over the issue that since 2012, he's sourced all 800,000 pounds of meat he serves in his restaurants each year from farms who don’t use antibiotics on their healthy animals.
It was also Rosenthal who, last April, urged Alderman Ed Burke to introduce the proposed resolution to the City Council.
If passed tomorrow, the resolution can’t force Congress to do anything, but Burke says it can “call the attention of the Illinois delegation to what we believe is an important public health initiative.”
But the measures face considerable opposition. The biggest players in the livestock industry have long resisted any mandatory restrictions.
"We are opposed to those bills because we really believe they are out of date with the current Food and Drug Administration regulatory activities,” said Illinois Pork Producer Association spokesman Tim Maier, who is based in Springfield.
He's referring to recent voluntary guidelines that prohibit using antibiotics to make animals grow faster. But preventative uses are still in a gray area and critics say the situation is much too grave to solve with voluntary guidelines. They further argue that the government doesn’t collect enough data to know if any farmers are choosing to comply.
But while health activists cite the rise of antibiotic resistant infections and antibiotic resistant bacteria on supermarket meat as as threat to public health, Maier says it's the restrictions proposed in the legislation that would cause a threat.
“We think they would actually harm animal health and by extension food safety by limiting the antibiotics that are available for farmers to use when they want to treat their animals,” he said.
Denmark, which is one of the largest pork producers in the world, banned the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in livestock in 2000. The move required some adjustments and saw some outbreaks of disease, but within a decade the World Health Organization “found that the ban reduced human health risk without significantly harming animal health or farmers' incomes,” according to the Pew Charitable Trust.
So why are chefs and restaurateurs involved in this legislative discussion?
“Because they understand that a meat supply that produces killer bacteria along with the meat is an unsustainable system and it has to be changed,” said Rosenthal. “That’s why these chefs are standing up for meat raised in a sustainable fashion without antibiotics to provide a better source of supply of meat both at the restaurant level and in the grocery store."
At grocery stores like Whole Foods Market, meat raised without antibiotics has served the baseline standards for a few years. Jared Donisvitch oversees the butcher counter at the store’s Lincoln Park location, where, he says, the antibiotic issue on shoppers minds.
“It comes up fairly often with our interactions with customers,” he said, “and so we are a well-trained group here and try to help customers with any questions they have on that.”
Representative Louise Slaughter of New York State is Congress’ only microbiologist and the sponsor of PAMPTA. Last week, she sent a letter to the Chicago City Council, saying “It is only through local, grassroots efforts like yours that we will make a difference in public health on a national level."
If the City Council resolution passes this week, Chicago would join the ranks of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Seattle and others. But even if all the cities in the nation adopt such resolutions, they can’t pass an act of Congress.
Still, Susan Vaughn Grooters of Keep Antibiotics Working, a nationwide coalition that aims to pass legislation to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics, says the local resolutions add a new voice to the usual Congressional debates.
“If we could get the groundswell from city councils across the nation to help support the federal legislation it could really help what’s happening in DC now,” she said. “It’s essential that they hear from other people, not just inside the beltway in DC.”
Burke also notes that municipal resolutions have played a part in creating national momentum on issues in the past.
“One issue that comes to mind is the effort we undertook a number of years ago to ban trans fats from food products,” he said. “Now you can’t walk down the aisles of the grocery store without seeing notations on boxes, ‘no trans fats’.”
The City Council is expected to vote on the resolution Wednesday afternoon.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org