SF Lifts Veil of Secrecy on US Livestock Antibiotic Use

Latest Update (October 24, 2017): Today, Mayor Ed Lee signed San Francisco’s groundbreaking new law, which will require large grocery chains to report the antibiotic use associated with the raw meat and poultry sold in their stores. The Mayor’s signature follows a unanimous vote in support of the ordinance from the Board of Supervisors. For more about what the ordinance does and its national significance, see below.

Update (October 17, 2017): The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 11-0 yesterday to approve the ordinance to require large grocery chains in San Francisco to report the antibiotic use practices associated with the fresh meat and poultry they sell in the City. Next, a final version will go to the Mayor in the near future.The Mayor's Departments of Environment and Public Health have been integrally involved in the development and progress of the ordinance.The requirements of the ordinance would go into effect a little more than six months after the Mayor's signature. Congratulations to Supervisor Sheehy and the San Francisco Departments of Environment and Public Health!

Original Post (October 03, 2017) San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is voting today on an issue that would put the Bay Area City at the forefront of US efforts to curb livestock antibiotic overuse—a driving cause of the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance.

If passed, the new law authored by Supervisor Jeff Sheehy (working with the City's Department of the Environment), would require large grocery chains like Safeway, Costco and Trader Joe’s to report to the City the antibiotic use practices for all of the meat sold in their stores, marking the first time in history that US livestock producers will have to share information about their antibiotic use with the public. 

The ordinance applies to any meat sold in SF, regardless of where it is produced, and it requires that grocery chains work with their suppliers to report how much antibiotics are used and how. This critical information will be posted on the City’s Department of the Environment website, where consumers will be able to easily access this information. Armed with important new facts about antibiotics use in livestock, consumers can continue to steer the market in the right direction.

Furthermore, for the first time, scientists, regulators, industry leaders, and public health advocates will have concrete information about how antibiotics are being used to raise food animals.

The ordinance goes beyond current federal laws, which allow livestock producers to use antibiotics to raise food animals without reporting or disclosure. California has a new law that would require reporting, but that law only applies to livestock raised in the Golden State, and much of the meat eaten by San Franciscans is imported from elsewhere. (We’re also concerned that California is not fully implementing the new law, but I’ll save that for another blog). The bottom line is that the companies who supply the meat we eat can use antibiotics intensively and irresponsibly, with no obligation to inform consumers or regulators.

Consumer concern about antibiotic resistance, and preference for antibiotics-safe meat, has been one of the biggest drivers of the conversation around livestock antibiotic use, and companies are listening. A recent survey reports that 66% of consumers are looking for products with better antibiotic use practices. Sales of organic chicken have increased by 78% since 2015, and major restaurant chains like McDonalds, KFC, and Subway, followed long time leaders, Chipotle and Panera, to make commitments to improve antibiotic use (particularly for chicken) in the last few years.

Empowered and informed consumers already have a big influence on the market—the new San Francisco ordinance will arm them with more information than ever before about the antibiotics use practices of poultry and livestock producers. Scientists, public health advocates, and journalists will also be able to use this resource to analyze the information and share it with the public.

For the first time, we will be able to get data about how these drugs are being used—including which companies are doing a better job at scaling back antibiotic use, how antibiotics are used in different animal species, and why they are being used. Most of the companies that sell meat in SF also sell in other parts of the country—it’s a game changer to have this information for these national brands.

For too long, antibiotics have been regularly added to the feed and water of pigs, cows, and chickens to compensate for stressful and crowded conditions and help them gain weight faster. Health authorities around the world warn that this practice contributes to rising rates of antibiotic resistance that threaten human health. Each year, at least 2 million people contract antibiotic-resistant illnesses and at least 23,000 people die as a result.

“Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food-producing animals can harm public health.” 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

FDA data shows that U.S. livestock stock use has climbed dramatically in recent years, even as livestock production has remained relatively flat. 

However, federal action has been inadequate to the task of reining in antibiotic use; FDA has banned use to speed up growth, but failed to collect data to track progress and continues to allow so-called “disease prevention” uses on animals that are not sick. The upshot: mass administration of important antibiotics to animals continues.

California and Maryland passed important laws in the last couple of years prohibiting the regular use of antibiotics for disease prevention on animals that are not sick, but they only apply to animals raised in those states. (And unfortunately, implementation in California is off to a weak start, with the California Department of Food and Agriculture proposing a voluntary system of data collection and contradicting and de-emphasizing the law’s prohibition on regular prophylactic use of antibiotics when animals are not sick.)

In this context, SF is poised to make a real difference. It can help us understand the true picture of antibiotic use in meat and poultry production in the US and make more informed shopping choices.

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.

About the Authors

Avinash Kar

Senior Attorney, Health & Environment program

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