NFL's Will Witherspoon Tackles Antibiotic Use on the Farm

Will Witherspoon on Capital Hill, warning of the dangers of antibiotic overuse in industrial farming and urging Congress to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. Photo by Alexandra Alberg.One of the many myths about high-welfare, sustainable food is that it's a "niche" market, only for the well off. Tackling the common misconception that making the right food choices is (at best) prohibitively expensive or (at worst) simply irrelevant is one of the challenges of AWI's Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program. That challenge involves convincing consumers that the industrialized production of "cheap meat" actually comes at significant cost—to animal welfare, the environment, and ultimately our health.

In this respect, Tennessee Titans starting linebacker and 12–year NFL veteran Will Witherspoon is perhaps AWI's "Most Valuable Player." Will is the owner of 500-acre Shire Gate Farm, an AWA-certified operation for grassfed White Park cattle in Owensville, Missouri (profiled in the Fall 2010 AWI Quarterly). Over the last year, Will has played a vital role in helping AWI reach new audiences, encouraging them to think about the way we farm and feed ourselves.

One of Will's primary concerns is the link between the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria—which evolve in response to the heavy use of antibiotics—and the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming to promote growth and to counteract the consequences of confining farm animals under overcrowded, stressful and unsanitary conditions. Given the fact that this superbug evolution represents one of the gravest known threats to human health, Will calls it "mind-blowing" that some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used by the livestock industry.

In July, at a briefing co-hosted by AWI for Members of Congress and their staffs, Will discussed the impacts of the misuse of antibiotics and their proper role in the health and welfare of animals raised for food. Will and two other panelists—Michael Blackwell, the former dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee, and Frank Reese, who raises heritage poultry on pasture in Kansas as part of the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch cooperative—urged passage of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), and in the Senate by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME). PAMTA would phase out the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals in order to maintain the effectiveness of these drugs for treating sick people and animals.