Vetoing Bill, Governor Brown Calls for Stronger Medicine to Curb Antibiotic Resistance

Last night, California’s Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB 835, a bill passed by the state legislature that would have replicated a flawed FDA policy for curbing some uses of antibiotics in livestock production.  In an act of real leadership, the Governor took a hard look at the measure and evidently came to the same conclusion reached by NRDC and a number of public interest organizations:  The bill would not provide a meaningful response to the problem of rising antibiotic resistance and the widescale use of these drugs to raise food animals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified antibiotic resistance to be among the top five health threats facing the nation.  Resistance occurs when antibiotics are used routinely, either for human medicine or for raising food animals.  Approximately 80 percent of all antibiotics sales in the U.S. are for livestock production. 

From the very beginning, SB 835 seemed too good to be true:  After decades of inaction, the bill promised to compel pharmaceutical companies to re-label livestock drugs to eliminate growth promotion uses of these precious medicines (For reasons not fully understood, routine use of antibiotics can make animals grow faster).  Moreover, the bill was supported by an array of industry groups.  To many legislators, that sounded like an offer they couldn’t refuse:  Incremental progress to challenge a stubborn but critical public health threat.  The bill sailed through both houses of the legislature, riding a river of hope that it would somehow begin to reduce total drug use in this industry.  

But in reality, SB 835 shared the same flaw as the federal policy, Guidance 213, upon which it was based:  While the bill would require “growth promotion” uses of antibiotics to be struck from product labels, it would have condoned the routine use of many of the same drugs for prophylactic disease prevention – even as a substitute for better animal living conditions and good husbandry practices.   So the bill would not have required a net reduction of antibiotic use. 

There’s a lot of evidence showing that the SB 835/Guidance 213 approach won’t really work.   When Guidance 213 was adopted earlier this year, pharmaceutical industry leaders assured investors that the policy was “not a material event” and would not effect total sales (see my colleague Avi Kar’s blog at the link above for specifics).  The Animal Health Institute reported that growth promotion uses of antibiotics comprise only a very small percentage of total use, meaning that most drug uses would not be effected by the policy.  In Europe, efforts to focus on reducing only growth promotion uses of antibiotics, while ignorning other uses, have shown that such an approach is ineffective (see the great write-up of this by our friends at CALPIRG). 

If it passed SB 835 wouldn’t have done much to reduce antibiotic use, but it would have helped opponents of antibiotic use reform justify more inaction while we “wait and see” for years before learning if the measure has any impact.

Governor Brown demonstrated extraordinary leadership in calling all stakeholders back to the table to find more effective solutions.  We look forward to working with him, SB 835’s author, Senator Hill, as well as other legislators and stakeholders, to promote real antibiotic stewardship in California.