5-Questions: Maryland PIRG

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you came to work for Maryland PIRG and what your role there is?

My name is Emily Scarr and I live in Baltimore, Maryland with my husband, two toddlers and our loyal dog. I’ve been working with the State PIRGs for 15 years, half of which have been in my current role as the Maryland PIRG Director. I got my start as a canvasser when I was in college, and then worked as an organizer with college students and managed email, websites, and social media organizing before taking my current position. My background strongly informs my approach to my work currently: I focus on building strong relationships with partner organizations and activists and also lean on my writing and communication skills to figure out how to make as much positive impact as possible in Maryland and beyond. My work in the state has focused on public health issues like antibiotic resistance and toxic chemical exposure; democracy issues from voting access to campaign finance reforms; and a slew of other environmental and consumer issues.

2. You and Maryland PIRG were instrumental in helping pass Maryland’s groundbreaking 2019 law, the Keep Antibiotics Effective Act, which prohibits the use of medically important antibiotics on healthy livestock and poultry. Can you give us the highlights of how you went about building the successful campaign that helped lead to the passage of the law?

Our success in Maryland did not come easy nor quickly. I think our strengths were the breadth and depth of our coalition, the sheer amount of time our co-leads at NRDC and I spent on the campaign, and a smart and determined political strategy. Our partners were personally invested in the campaign in a way I haven’t seen on other issues, which meant they went above and beyond in their advocacy efforts. From labor unions, nurses and doctors, to environmentalists and animal rights groups, people were ready and willing to help however they could and that made a difference in our lobbying efforts tremendously. Politically, our strategy worked. We thought Maryland made sense to target because of our large poultry industry, especially as the industry was beginning to respond to consumer pressure, and that was key to our messaging and story.

After introducing a bill with little fanfare in year one, we convened a coalition in the fall before the next legislative session with a day-long meeting that included presentations, discussions, and an antibiotic free lunch! The event served to educate potential partners and deepen support for the campaign, and from there we just kept growing our campaign leadership and diversity. Our coalition brought a lot of different strengths: we had public health experts and researchers who were incredible spokespeople; we had grassroots groups that were able to deliver constituent pressure (Maryland PIRG also knocked on thousands of doors to talk to Marylanders about the campaign); we had strong support from businesses and farmers; we had great research and science to back us up; and, we had skilled lobbyists in Annapolis. We also had a lot of meaningful conversations with stakeholders to reach compromise wherever possible. I’d be remiss not to mention that we won in steps, not all at once, due in large part to the strong support of our legislative champions and our determination of all of our partners to work on this issue beyond a single legislative win. Because we actually won twice. The first time we passed a law, in 2017 we accepted a compromise that removed any reporting requirements from the law. Then, the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) issued regulations that were so weak they undermined the intent of the law. We mounted a massive campaign to get them to fix their weak regulations, and ultimately won, but the debacle gave us the political power we need to strengthen the law further than we’d originally been able - to ensure it’s proper implementation we passed an updated law that made sure the regulations would do what we intended AND required the strongest reporting for antibiotics use in the nation. Now we’re committed to ensuring MDA has the proper staffing and funding to do the reporting well.

3. No bill passes without political champions. Who were the biggest champions for this bill and what made them interested in the issue of antibiotic resistance?

Now Chairman of the Senate Committee for Health and the Environment, Sen. Paul Pinsky has been a major champion on the campaign as well as now-retired Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, RN, who also serves on the Health and Environment Committee. In the House we worked with former delegate Shane Robinson and current delegate Sara Love who both served on the Environment Committee. All of our sponsors became true experts and advocates on the bill and issue through some tough debates and negotiations.

I am not sure I speak to the motivation of our sponsors, but I know they all care deeply about the impacts of antibiotic resistance on public health; Sen. Nathan-Pulliam is a nurse and had a family member who had become ill with resistant infection.

Our coalition also had huge champions: in addition to PIRG, our top advocates include Mae Wu, then at NRDC and Emily Ranson from Clean Water Action; nurses and public health professionals including infectious disease specialist Emily Heil and Robin Gilden and Pat McLaine from the Maryland Nurses Association; environmental and labor advocates from Sierra Club and SEIU1199; Laura Rogers and Dr. Lance B. Price from ARAC, and restaurant owners and farmers from across the state.

4. We were particularly excited that the Maryland law requires food animal producers to report granular levels of how and why antibiotics are given to animals. Can you give us highlights from the report and why the report is so important?

My top takeaway from the first reports is that the Maryland Keep Antibiotics Effective Act is working. Thanks to the leadership of some of the poultry industry in Maryland and the required reporting from the Department of Agriculture, we can confirm very low levels of antibiotics used to treat poultry. The law has stopped the routine use of antibiotics in chicken production, and as the data shows, Maryland chicken producers have successfully transitioned to healthier alternatives for their operations. More states should follow Maryland’s lead.

We are still seeing higher use of antibiotics for cattle, due in part to a one year delay in the bill’s implementation for dairy cows to enable farmers to prepare for the transition. New regulations went into effect in January, so we hope to see a drop in usage in 2022.

The report is important for a few reasons. It helps ensure Maryland farmers and veterinarians are following the law. It also demonstrates what is possible, and pushes more of the industry to adopt alternatives to routine antibiotics use. There’s no reason all animal agriculture operations can’t also stop the routine use of antibiotics, and there’s no reason all veterinarians can’t report their antibiotics use (when treating sick animals or to control for disease) to the state or federal government: it’s as easy as uploading a copy of the federally required VFD. And the data also opens the doors for further research into the impacts of antibiotic use on farms and antibiotic resistance.

5. You've been working on antibiotic resistance for a number of years now. What freaks you out? What gives you hope?

Whenever I revisit the data, I get freaked out. Antibiotic resistance is now likely the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States. My daughter was born in 2017 via an emergency c-section, which would not have been possible without antibiotics. My stepmother had a tough fight against a community acquired resistant infection after a small fall from her bike. Knowing what’s at stake, I’m freaked out by the utter lack of action at the federal level from administrative or congressional action. Fortunately, I’m a relentless optimist, and so while I fully expect things will always get worse before they get better I know that with good organizing, strong leadership, and sheer force of will, we can move more states, companies, and even the federal government to respond to antibiotic resistance and protect lifesaving medicines for future generations.