California Is One Tiny Step from Really Stopping Antibiotic Abuse on Farms

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California is poised to become the first state to enact tough restrictions intended to curb the livestock industry’s dangerous addiction to antibiotics, which experts cite as a prime culprit behind the alarming rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs in the United States.

California is poised to become the first state to enact tough restrictions intended to curb the livestock industry’s dangerous addiction to antibiotics, which experts cite as a prime culprit behind the alarming rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs in the United States.

As for the rest of us who don’t live in the Golden State? Well, we’re still out of luck.

While the Food and Drug Administration has been lax in responding to the superbug crisis—issuing voluntary guidelines for the livestock industry or rules essentially shot full of loopholes—California is stepping up. State legislators recently passed S.B. 27, a landmark law that would finally put an end to the routine use of antibiotics at livestock operations. The bill is now on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, and the odds are reportedly favorable that he’ll sign it.

The livestock industry has long plied otherwise healthy animals with antibiotics on a daily basis, routinely mixing the drugs with animal feed. Again, these are healthy animals—they’re not sick. But way back in the mid–20th century, farmers discovered that prophylactic use of antibiotics not only prevented infections in their animals, but it mysteriously made them grow bigger. (Science still doesn’t know why.)

Today, upwards of 70 to 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used not to treat infections in people or even animals, but essentially as glorified chicken, cattle, and pig feed.

The flagrant use of antibiotics by the livestock industry has coincided with a scary increase in antibiotic-resistant infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2 million Americans develop such infections each year—resulting in at least 23,000 deaths—and the agency has long warned that we’re at risk of losing the effectiveness of certain medically important antibiotics that, just a few generations ago, were hailed as miracle drugs.

Yet, all too often, the agency in charge of regulating antibiotic use has appeared more interested in placating the livestock industry than protecting public health. A recent move by the FDA to eliminate over-the-counter sales of medically important antibiotics to farmers and instead require a veterinarian’s authorization reveals how messed up the system has become: You can’t buy these antibiotics off the shelf at your local drugstore for your kid, but until last June, a farmer essentially could for his pigs.    

In contrast, California’s new law would impose many of the restrictions on antibiotic abuse that public health advocates have been clamoring for, such as targeting the practice of feeding animals antibiotics day in and day out. Farmers or vets who try to skirt the law could face fines of up to $500 per day.

In passing such legislation, California lawmakers would appear to be responding to the will of their constituents. A statewide poll of voters released in June by the Natural Resources Defense Council found an overwhelming 76 percent agreed that “overuse of antibiotics in our food supply is a problem,” with roughly the same number supporting legislation that would increase state regulation of antibiotics in meat and poultry.

It seems those voters are about to get what they want. As for how long the rest of us will have to wait for meaningful action on the federal level by the FDA, there’s no telling.

This story was originally published on Take Part.


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