Borrowing from her background in microbiology, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., has made a signature issue out of battling “superbugs,” strains of bacteria that have mutated from overexposure to antibiotics and become resistant to the very drugs meant to block their growth.
To ratchet up attention to a health issue largely overlooked in Washington, Slaughter has enlisted the aid of a man who is himself seemingly indestructible, Will Witherspoon, a Tennessee Titans linebacker who has missed only two games during 10 seasons in the NFL.
In what would have been a study in physical contrasts, the petite, 83-year-old Slaughter planned a press conference this week with the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Witherspoon to reintroduce legislation limiting the use of antibiotics—a measure that she has sponsored in every Congress since 2007. A scheduling conflict intervened, so Slaughter on Thursday dropped the bill without any theater. But the unlikely duo is still planning a joint appearance later this spring to call attention to the fact that overuse of antibiotics in animals is reducing their effectiveness in humans.
On the phone from Atlanta, Witherspoon, 32, recounted how he came to be a “grassroots cattleman” and advocate of “high-welfare” farming techniques. About 10 years ago, Witherspoon bought 185 acres near Owensville, Mo., for his Shire horses. Witherspoon then set out to purchase two or three head of cattle—and came home with 16. “I changed my dynamic a little bit at that point,” he said. Shire Gate Farm has since expanded to about 1,000 acres.
Witherspoon feeds grass to his White Park cattle; antibiotics and hormones are prohibited. “I believe that [livestock] should be produced naturally in a safe environment,” he said. “If I don’t practice what I preach, then what good is it?”
At a conference for like-minded cattlemen, Witherspoon’s farm manager met a representative of Animal Welfare Approved, an organization that certifies high-welfare farming operations. The group linked Witherspoon with Slaughter, who has been focused on eliminating the prophylactic use of antibiotics.
Slaughter, who has a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s in public health from the University of Kentucky, says overuse of antibiotics, especially in livestock production, has become such a serious problem that “even common illnesses like strep throat could soon prove fatal.”
Her new bill to stop overuse of antibiotics—“updated to reflect the severity of the growing crisis,” her office said—would prohibit “nontherapeutic use” of certain classes of the bacteria-fighting drugs.
This article appears in the March 15, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as NFL Superstar Tackles ‘Superbugs’.