California Governor Urged To Sign Bill Limiting Antibiotics In Farm Animals

Your hand tastes nice, but it could use a twist of amoxicillin... (afagen)

Your hand tastes nice, but it could use a twist of amoxicillin… (afagen)

Some 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. go into animal feed, primarily for the purpose of growth-promotion (or under the vague, confusing umbrella of “disease prevention”), a practice that researchers believe is contributing to the development of drug-resistant bacteria that sicken millions, and kill thousands, of Americans each year. California legislators recently passed a bill aimed at limiting the overuse of antibiotics on livestock and it’s now up to Governor Jerry Brown to decide whether or not to sign it.

If enacted, SB 27, would prohibit the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs on livestock except in situations where they are prescribed by a veterinarian. Additionally, it would outlaw the use of antibiotics solely for the purpose of weight gain.

Antibiotics can be used under this new law, which wouldn’t kick in until Jan. 1, 2018, but there is a prohibition against administering them in a “regular pattern.” This is intended to prevent farmers and veterinarians from claiming that the drugs are needed for everyday disease prevention. However, it’s worth noting that the law does not yet provide parameters for what constitutes a regular pattern.

There’s another undefined piece of phrasing in the law that will undoubtedly be debated if SB 27 is signed. The bill permits the prophylactic use of antibiotics to “address an elevated risk of contraction of a particular disease or infection.”

Low-dose prophylactic use of these drugs is believed to be a leading promoter of drug-resistant bacteria. The law requires that prophylactic treatment be for a specific disease, which will hopefully prevent farmers from using multiple drugs to prevent an array of possible infections, but the lack of definition for the term “elevated risk” is a soft point among some of the scientists — all of whom generally support the bill — we spoke to.

But no piece of legislation is perfect, and SB 27 has the opportunity to do something the recent actions by the FDA do not: Truly hold farmers and veterinarians accountable.

If a farmer or vet is caught violating the law — not just by state regulators or law enforcement, but by anyone who can prove their case — they can be sued in court where they will have to defend their actions and potentially face consequences of up to $500/day.

Veterinarians found to violate the law could face the loss of their license. That may be enough to turn the heads of those vets who may have been a little overly generous with antibiotics before.

The legal process can also help iron out what it means to provide antibiotics in a “regular pattern” or what sort of infectious threat rises to the level of “elevated risk.”

In addition to outlawing bad practices, SB 27 also adds a good one by requiring the state’s Dept. of Food and Agriculture to develop a program to gather information on antibiotic use in meat production. This is the sort of vital data gathering that researchers and consumer advocates have been pushing the FDA to pursue, as it would provide a more granular picture of the types and amounts of drugs being provided to the various types of livestock.

Up until its final round of revisions, our colleagues at Consumers Union were opposed to SB 27 because it still allowed meat producers to regularly give antibiotics to animals even though they aren’t sick. That made it virtually the same bill that Gov. Brown vetoed in 2014.

But following the amendments to add prohibitions on routine uses, CU is now urging the governor to sign the bill, which would be the first of its kind in the U.S.

“Consumers Union supports the use of antibiotics only to treat sick animals, not to prevent disease in healthy animals,” reads the letter [PDF] sent this week by CU’s Elisa Odabashian to Gov. Brown. “While this bill would allow for a veterinarian to prescribe antibiotics for a healthy flock or herd if a risk of disease or infection is imminent, that use must be limited, not routine. We urge careful administration and oversight of the implementation of this law to ensure that antibiotics are not overused for disease risk.”

Given his office’s involvement in working to amend SB 27, Brown is expected to sign the legislation in the coming weeks.

“The reckless use of antibiotics for meat production threatens public health by making these medications less effective for treating disease,” explains Odabashian. “This bill should prevent these critical drugs from being wasted on healthy animals and help ensure they continue to work when and where they are needed most.”

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