California acts to curtail antibiotic overuse on farm animals

Last Friday, California lawmakers approved a bill (SB 82) setting the nation’s strongest restrictions on antibiotics overuse on farm animals, after a strong push by CA Governor Jerry Brown. California’s action comes just two months after Oregon lawmakers failed to pass a similar proposal (SB 920) in the 2015 Legislative Session.

"We commend California lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown for taking strong action to protect their citizens from antibiotic overuse on farm animals. We hope this inspires Oregon lawmakers and Gov. Kate Brown to heed the call of the medical community and thousands of Oregon farmers and follow suit," said OSPIRG executive director Dave Rosenfeld.

The World Health Organization, the Food & Drug Administration and most major national medical organizations have recognized that antibiotics are becoming less effective and could stop working. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 2 million Americans become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.

Farming practices are often a source of the problem; 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used on livestock and poultry, and not primarily to treat sick animals. Instead, antibiotics are often put into the daily feed of healthy animals to promote growth and prevent disease due to overcrowded conditions. This practice can breed powerful antibiotic resistant bacteria, sometimes called “superbugs”, These germs can then find their way to the human population through numerous pathways, including contaminated food, airborne dust blowing off farms, and water and soil polluted with contaminated feces.

Federal action to date has been weak and, despite some encouraging signs, the market has been slow to act, prompting states like California and Oregon to consider taking steps on their own to protect the public from superbugs.

This spring, a coalition of Oregon doctors, nurses, farmers and consumers [pdf] pressed state lawmakers to approve a proposal that would have curtailed the practice of feeding farm animals routine doses of antibiotics. The measure was advanced by the Senate Health Care committee, but then stalled. Factory farming interests opposed the bill.

California's measure, while different than the Oregon proposal in some details, has the same focus on reducing routine antibiotic use on animals, while protecting farmers' ability to treat legitimately sick animals.

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