California bill leads nation with significant steps to limit antibiotic overuse in meat production

California took a significant step forward for public health last week. Thanks to the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown in calling for important improvements to a previously problematic bill and the efforts of the bill's author, Senator Jerry Hill, the California legislature passed a bill (SB 27) that puts California at the forefront of efforts in the U.S. to limit the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in meat production and protect the efficacy of precious antibiotics.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified antibiotic resistance as one of the top health threats facing the nation. Antibiotic-resistant infections can result in longer illnesses, more hospitalizations, the use of antibiotics with greater side-effects, and even death when treatments fail. Growing resistance also puts complicated medical procedures such as heart surgery, organ transplants, and chemotherapy in jeopardy, because they rely on the availability of effective antibiotics.

CDC estimates that each year at least 23,000 people die from antibiotic resistant infections and at least 2 million people are sickened by such infections. Any use of antibiotics, whether in human medicine or animal agriculture, can contribute to antibiotic resistant bacteria, but medically important antibiotics given routinely at low doses to whole herds or flocks of animals are significantly more risky than use on animals that are sick.

More than 70% of sales of medically important antibiotics in the United States are for animal use. More problematically, most of these antibiotics are for use in feed and water, and given at low doses to large herds or flocks of healthy animals, which creates greater risk of breeding antibiotic resistance. Thus, addressing antibiotic misuse and overuse in livestock must be a part of the solution.

That's where SB 27 comes in. As passed, the bill both constrains the regular use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick and disallows antibiotic use for growth promotion. Doing both is key to progress. The bill also requires the California Department of Food and Agriculture to develop a program to gather information on antibiotic use in meat production. Finally, it puts livestock antibiotic use under veterinary oversight and calls for the development of guidelines and best management practices for the use of antibiotics in livestock. The bill now heads to the Governor's desk for his signature.

Of course, there is much more that needs to be done to protect antibiotics and address the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance. But SB 27 is an important advance beyond the status quo and inadequate federal policy on antibiotic use in meat production. With the Governor's signature, the bill will help protect public health and keep antibiotics working to protect our families into the future.

The Governor's attention to the science and to the concerns of our broad coalition of public health, medical, environmental, community, farm, and business voices was a key factor in turning SB 27 into a constructive bill that makes progress on this key public health issue. We applaud him for his leadership and hope that other states and the federal government will follow California's lead.