As debate around food safety regulation heats up — some might say, overheats — sublimely named Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) has introduced a House bill that would significantly affect farming practices in the United States.

Called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Human Treatment Act, the bill would effectively prevent CAFOs (confined animal feedlot operations) from dousing their animals with antibiotics as a matter of course. (Ted Kennedy has introduced similar legislation in the Senate).

Stuffing animals together by the thousands turns out to wreck their immune systems. In order to keep their animals alive until slaughter, CAFO operators give them regular lashings of antibiotics. (Antibiotics also stimulate growth.) Animal farming now consumes 70 percent of antibiotics used in the United States. Researchers are linking antibiotic use on hog CAFOs with the rise of MRSA, a flesh-eating bacteria that now kills more people each year than AIDS. That’s a topic government regulators have been willfully ignoring.

Of course, the industrial-meat market is dominated by a few companies and represents billions in annual sales. A true ban on antibiotic abuse could be tantamount to a blow as deadly to meat-industry giants as the ones they deal to hundreds of thousands of animals each day.

They’ll fight the legislation accordingly. As Slaughter told Reuters Tuesday:

We’re up against a pretty strong lobby. It will really come down to whether members of Congress want to protect their constituents or agribusiness.

She added, hopefully: “I do believe the chance are good, at least getting it through the House.”

Meanwhile, the meat industry emitted a squeal. Reuters reported on the reaction from a National Pork Producers Council spokesperson:

If the bill goes into effect, [he] said piglet deaths would go up, producer costs would rise, meat output would drop and consumers would see prices climb. “There is no question there is a rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria … What is in big doubt is that the use of antibiotics in livestock has anything to do with that.”

I think the flack is right. The whole CAFO model does seem to rely on the free use of antibiotics. This bill, if passed, could spark a true national reckoning with how we raise and consume meat.

The Pew Center has more information on antibiotic abuse and legislation designed to stop it.