Both outbreaks were traced back to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs,” often developed in farms that pump their livestock with human antibiotics to spur animal growth and prevent diseases from spreading in overpopulated farms. This means that if a disease hops from the animal to a farm employee — or a dinner plate to a human’s digestive system — regular antibiotics wouldn’t be able to cure the disease. And if it isn’t contained, there’s little stopping a major deadly outbreak.
The influence corporate drug companies have on our government isn’t just disappointing, it’s dangerous.
The Food and Drug Administration, while acknowledging the gravity of superbug outbreaks, has yet to create mandatory laws banning antibiotics for this purpose — despite the fact that every year, two million Americans fall sick and about 23,000 die from antibiotic-resistant diseases.
But last week, California decided it was done waiting for federal intervention. Home to the third largest livestock industry in the country, California took became the first state to ban the unnecessary use of human antibiotics on its livestock population.
“What’s happening in California is some of the most exciting news I’ve heard in a while,” said Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center (ARAC) at George Washington University. “And you know what they say about California — it passes a law and the rest of the country follows.”
But Price, who’s spent years studying the link between the overuse of antibiotics in livestock and the rise of antibiotic resistance, along with other industry experts said that signing this bill — which won’t go into effect until 2018 — is just the beginning of a bigger battle. One that involves consumer influence and increased government intervention. One that won’t stop until it makes it to the FDA.
Taking A Stand
Antibiotics were never meant to be used on livestock — they were only introduced after public demand for reliable meat supplies inspired scientists to experiment. Sixty years later, the livestock industry now accounts for nearly 80 percent of antibiotics sales in the U.S. That’s 63,000 tons of antibiotics each year.
“We are currently running straight toward an antibiotic-resistant outbreak,” Price said. “The influence corporate drug companies have on our government isn’t just disappointing, it’s dangerous.”
Many states have tried to push similar legislation in the past, but California’s the first to get a green light. Unlike a more controversial state bill targeting the meat industry that was approved last year, which requires all chicken farmers to give egg-laying hens 70 percent more space, this one only affects livestock within California — not meat exported from other states.
It’s also the first legislation to include language banning both types of antibiotic use on animals in industrial farms: Drugs used to speed up an animal’s growth process and drugs used to prevent diseases an animal could catch in a cramped, unsanitary living space. The disease prevention piece is the more controversial of the two, since this allows farmers to produce a higher number of animals in a small amount of space — and improves the survival rate animals being shipped across the country.
This is the biggest element that sets California’s new law apart from existing FDA regulation. A 2014 Pew study found 66 antibiotic products that the FDA allows to be used for “disease prevention” — most of them being added in large doses to animal’s daily feed.
Opponents pushed California Gov. Jerry Brown to crack down on this practice in the recent, final text of the legislation, arguing that the “disease prevention” loophole is an inhumane shortcut and just another avenue to breed a resistant superbug.
Stressing The Specifics
“This is a very, very good bill. It shines a light on a loophole the FDA has ignored for too long,” said Laura Rogers, deputy director of ARAC. “The devil is always in the details. And these companies love the details.”
One of those details lies in the FDA’s voluntary guidance on antibiotics use that was implemented in 2013. The guidance, while suggesting a ban on growth-promoting antibiotics, approves producers to use “therapeutic” drugs on livestock with veterinary oversight. “Therapeutic” can easily be translated into the more overarching disease prevention drugs added to all of the animal’s feed, not just ones who have an actual illness. And “veterinary oversight” usually means an off-site signature, said Rogers.
“You have to look at all the pieces of the puzzle,” she said.
California’s legislation is attempting to fill in the gaps left behind by the federal government in other ways. A common barrier in understanding state — and national — antibiotic resistance issues is the lack of reliable information. The FDA doesn’t track the use of any human antibiotics on livestock. California’s new law hopes to remedy this.
“We have terrible data collection methods in California rights now,” said Patty Lovera, the assistant director of Food and Water Watch, an environmental nonprofit that focuses on food safety. “ It makes it challenging to bring evidence to the table. Now we can start looking at real numbers to influence future policy.”
Shaping The Industry
Cracking down on the overuse of antibiotics may do more than curb the spread of superbugs — it could also promote more spacious, healthy environments for state livestock. That means fewer animals per farm. And, considering the fact that many companies’ economic model involves churning out the mass amount of product in the smallest amount of space, some industry experts speculate that stricter regulations in this area could push some companies out of state altogether.
So far, though, the industry players in California don’t seem concerned.
“I think the bill is basically doing something that we in California have been doing all along, which is phasing out antibiotic use,” Bill Mattos, president of California Poultry Federation, told Bloomberg. “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.”
And beef farmers seem to agree.
“The issue is going away nationally anyway, even though it’s voluntary,” said Justin Oldfield, vice president of government relations for the California Cattlemen’s Association — which remained neutral on the recent bill. “We’re just making it official. I don’t see this affecting the industry. We care about antimicrobial resistance.”
In March 2014, 25 out of the 26 pharmaceutical companies that sponsor animal drugs said they would comply with the FDA’s voluntary guidance — which still includes the therapeutic drugs. But Oldfield said overall compliance wouldn’t be as impossible as it seems. He knows of no one wanting to move their business out of state.
“I’d only be vocal if it threatens smaller, more rural farmers who don’t have timely access to veterinarians,” he said. “We won’t allow anything that risks the animal’s health and welfare.”
Influencing The Feds
Lovera also said that the growing trend in restaurant chains banning meat treated with antibiotics from their stores may add momentum to the movement. Most recently, Subway announced it would phase antibiotics out of all of the chain’s meat by 2025.
“Five years ago, these companies were denying antibiotics were a problem. We’re having an entirely different conversation now,” she said.
But, she said that in an ideal situation, it shouldn’t be up to the consumer to decide if their meat has been dosed with antibiotics. It should be a given.
“It shouldn’t matter where you shop. We need to create across-the board standards,” Lovera said. “Which really is up to the government.”
Five years ago, these companies were denying antibiotics were a problem. We’re having an entirely different conversation now.
So what are the chances California’s bill will nudge the FDA into action? Not so great, according to Price.
“The FDA will not change until the companies allow them to change,” he said. “There’s far too much pressure on the federal government from drug and animal companies not to do anything that will compromise their revenue.”
It’s a conundrum, he added, because the public relies heavily on the same powerful drug companies to create life-saving drugs.
“The same groups that are making antibiotics to protect us from diseases are relying on this market,” Price said. “It’s hard to ask them for a favor and slap them at the same time.”
Price’s biggest worry takes on a more ominous angle: A global outbreak. The U.S. isn’t the only country using antibiotics on its livestock — and it’s far more regulated than many. But without promising full protection through laws like California’s, it may be difficult for the U.S. to prove to other countries why it’s important.
“We cannot lead in other countries if we don’t have our own policy in place,” he said. “It’s hypocritical and it’s careless.”