Will Witherspoon: Food System Hero

An NFL linebacker and sustainable farmer wants Congress to get antibiotics out of the meat industry.

September 4, 2012

There's an unlikely person out to save the food system—and possibly your life. Will Witherspoon, a pro football player for the Tennessee Titans, is spending his final days before grueling NFL training camp begins lobbying Congress to end antibiotic abuse in farming. "It's important. I wouldn't make the effort to be here if it wasn't important to me, and I like to stand behind the things I support," he said.

For Witherspoon, the issue is personal.

A Titan of Sustainable Farming
The 31-year-old athlete owns Shire Gate Farm, an 800-acre sustainable farm in Missouri that produces grass-fed beef. In his six years of farming experience, Witherspoon's animals have thrived on a pasture-based diet. In fact, he can count on just one hand the number of times one of his cows fell ill and needed a short dose of antibiotics.

That's a stark contrast to the life of the typical farm animal raised for standard supermarket meat, where the normal order of business involves feeding low-dose antibiotics daily to otherwise healthy animals that are confined in small spaces. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) numbers show that more than 30 million pounds of antibiotics are given to farm animals each year, the overwhelming majority of it fed to speed growth or counteract dirty conditions and unnatural diets that damage an animal's healthy immune system.

Witherspoon spent hours on Capitol Hill Tuesday, visiting with members of Congress and staffers, sharing stories of his farm—an operation certified under the humane Animal Welfare Approved standard—and outlining how a sustainable operation can make money and protect natural resources like drinking water while raising animals in a dignified way.

Before making his rounds for one-on-one visits with congressional leaders, Witherspoon joined veterinarian and public health expert Michael Blackwell, DVM, MPH, former deputy director for the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine and current board member for the Humane Society of the United States, and sustainable poultry farmer Frank Reese, of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, as they led a congressional briefing, making the case that routinely feeding antibiotics to farm animals isn't necessary.

Using these important drugs so freely and without veterinary intervention (anyone can walk into a farm store and buy large amounts of antibiotics) affects people, too, since humans depend on many of the same antibiotics when they fall ill. Abusing antibiotics in farming has led to a dangerous spike in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, superbugs like MRSA, that kill 19,000 people a year—more people than the AIDS virus claims annually. "We are truly producing a generation of microbes that are unaffected by the drugs we depend on when we're sick," explained Dr. Blackwell "The safest drugs are the first we'll lose, and that will force us to go to more toxic drugs."


Although there is legislation on the table that would end the routine use of antibiotics in farming, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) has yet to catch on in Congress, despite a growing public health crisis. As it stands, potentially lethal superbug germs are routinely found on supermarket meats. "Just last year, the United States had three major outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant foodborne illness, all from meat products," said Rep. Louis Slaughter, (D–N.Y.). She reintroduced PAMTA in 2011, but so far, few federally elected officials are biting.

Urge your leaders in Congress to support the legislation, and in the meantime, go out of your way to avoid antibiotics in meat to protect your health.

4 Ways to Avoid Drugged Meat
Go organic. Organic farming bans the use of antibiotics in animal farming and requires that animal feed come from crops grown without the use of genetically engineered ingredients or chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic does not, however, guarantee that cows enjoyed a completely grass-based diet.

Seek out the Animal Welfare Approved seal. Animals raised in this audited program only ingest antibiotics when they are facing an illness that requires the meds. These animals also enjoy a more natural diet, one fundamentally based on pasture or range. A more natural diet promotes healthy digestive health, which in turn reduces the risk of dangerous E. coli infections.

Familiarize yourself with Certified Humane. This program allows antibiotics only when an animal is sick. While the program does allow some confinement, it prohibits crates and cages.

Connect with local farmers. Visit LocalHarvest.org to find sustainable farmers in your area, and check out the operation for yourself. Ask the farmer about antibiotic use in feed and how the farm treats animals when they fall ill.