California might be among the last places in American that the sun hits with the dawning of each day, but it’s consistently among the first to wake up and take action on issues that threaten the safety of people and the environment.
Right on the heels of last week’s landmark passage of the SB 350 climate bill, which commits the state to reducing carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030, California passed SB 27, which limits the use of antibiotics in livestock.
The reason for this is that it has been shown that the use of antibiotics in livestock has led to increased prevalence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, such as MRSA.
This is an issue that people have been aware of for some time, but due to the fact that low doses of antibiotics have been shown to make livestock grow faster, an economic boon for the ag industry, there has been resistance to cut back, despite the risk.
The FDA was expected to take action, considering the fact that its own Center for Veterinary Medicine produced a nine-minute video warning of the dangers. But for reasons that we suspect were not scientific in nature, the agency rather abruptly changed course, opting instead to provide voluntary guidelines.
California, however, had no such reluctance. The new law prohibits the use of antibiotics in cows, chickens, pigs and any other animals raised for meat, unless specifically used to treat animals that are sick, or for preventative purposes in cases of “elevated risk,” requiring the guidance of a veterinarian.
It is estimated that at least 23,000 Americans die each year from superbug infections, though some estimates run two to three times that high, with worldwide estimates reaching as high as 700,000. One study, commissioned by the British government last year, predicted as many as 10 million deaths from superbugs by 2050, more than cancer, with most of those occurring in Africa and Asia. The impact of that on the world economy could be as high as $100 trillion by 2050 or 3.5 percent of global GDP.
Given that the reason given for the lack of effective action on this has been industry pressure, it might be surprising to learn that, at least in California, the industry did not come out against the bill, decrying government regulation as so often is done. Instead, California’s meat and poultry associations remained neutral on the bill. Only seven lawmakers voted against it.
Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, was quoted in Bloomberg Business: “I think the bill is basically doing something that we in California have been doing all along, which is phasing out antibiotic use. It’s something that the industry is living with. We’re happy to get this bill the way it is, and I think we’re going to see more of this.”
Indeed, before legislation, there was consumer demand. Back in March, McDonald’s said it would stop selling chicken raised with antibiotics. Tyson Foods fell in line soon after, followed by Foster Farms and Perdue. Now Walmart is asking suppliers to do the same.
“I think we’re seeing the marketplace change, and this legislation will continue to push it in that direction,” said Jason Pfeifle, public health advocate at the California Public Interest Research Group.
It would appear that there has been a sea change on this issue, as farmers’ fears have subsided, and have in essence given way to the apparently more legitimate fears on the part of public health officials.
As Nathanael Johnson wrote in Grist: “The industry support for — or at least lack of opposition to — the California law suggests that we really have turned a corner on agricultural use of antibiotics. It also suggests that the industry will thrive without too much upheaval as it puts the squeeze on antibiotic use.”
Image credit: Heribert Duling: Wikimedia Commons