California Legislators Approve Weak Legislation to Curb Livestock Antibiotic Use

Yesterday the California Assembly followed the state’s Senate in approving a very modest bill to address the problem of antibiotic use in the livestock sector.   SB 835 (Hill) may make a very small dent, if any, in reducing the routine use of antibiotics to raise livestock.   NRDC and numerous other public interest groups opposed the measure because it is unlikely to reduce antibiotic use. 

According to the CDC, every year over 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections and over 2 million people are sickened.  That’s CDC’s conservative estimate. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are on the rise, reducing the effectiveness of essential medicines so that treatment becomes more expensive, difficult, and sometimes impossible. CDC, the World Health Organization, and other prominent medical and scientific groups such as the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American Academy of Pediatrics recognize that both human and animal use of antibiotics is contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. With over 80% of antibiotic sales in the US going to livestock and poultry use, animal use of antibiotics needs to be part of the solution.

Right now, antibiotics are often given to food animals day after day in low doses to speed up animal growth and to compensate for crowded, unsanitary and stressful living conditions.  Mirroring a flawed voluntary policy recently adopted by the Food and Drug Administration, SB 835 would prohibit drug manufacturers from selling antibiotics for “growth promotion” uses, but would allow the very same drugs to be used routinely to help animals survive unhealthy living conditions.   It’s a gigantic loophole that we fear will do little to change actual drug use.  Indeed, California’s Senator Feinstein along with Senators Gillibrand (NY) and Warren (MA), just sent FDA a letter challenging the adequacy of the federal initiative that SB 835 would implement here in California.  The Senators wrote:  “The benefits of this change [FDA’s new initiative] will be negligible, however, if the same animals can continue receiving the same antibiotics at the same doses.”

Farmers both in the US and abroad have demonstrated that antibiotics are not necessary to prevent disease even in industrial livestock and poultry operations.  Better management practices can do the job.  Companies like Chipotle, Panera, and others are selling meat raised without antibiotics at mainstream prices.  

With little hope for real leadership from federal regulators, California lawmakers can still play a critical role in making progress on this issue.  We need laws to stop the practice of giving animals that are not sick low doses of antibiotics in their feed day after day. Such a measure was introduced by Assemblymember Mullin (D-San Mateo) earlier this year, but the bill died in the Assembly Agriculture Committee.   We also need laws that require reporting of antibiotic use so that we know where, how, and why antibiotics are being used, how practices are changing, and if the FDA’s voluntary policy (and, if enacted, SB 835)  is having any impact.   

Hopefully SB 835 can be a building block rather than a stumbling block for more meaningful reform.