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California Moves Against Superbugs

Health: Law bans use of antibiotics to prevent disease in healthy livestock

by Britt E. Erickson
October 16, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 41

Credit: Shutterstock
California will ban nonmedical uses of antibiotics in pigs and other livestock.
Pigs at a breeding farm.
Credit: Shutterstock
California will ban nonmedical uses of antibiotics in pigs and other livestock.

California will become the first U.S. state to prohibit the use of antibiotics for preventing disease and enhancing growth in farm animals under a new state law.

Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Oct. 10, the law will also prohibit over-the-counter sales of antibiotics for livestock and require animal producers to report data on antibiotic use to the California Department of Food & Agriculture. The law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018.

“The science is clear that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock has contributed to the spread of antibiotic resistance and the undermining of decades of lifesaving advances in medicine,” Brown says in a statement. Drug-resistant bacteria, often called superbugs, are linked to an estimated 23,000 deaths and 2 million infections in the U.S. each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Public health, environmental, and food safety groups hail California’s efforts to tackle antibiotic resistance, pointing out that the new law goes beyond actions by the federal government. For example, the Food & Drug Administration is relying on the pharmaceutical industry to voluntarily remove claims about growth promotion from labels on antibiotics given to farm animals.

The new law “steps in where the federal government has failed to act,” says Rebecca Spector, West Coast director of the advocacy group Center for Food Safety. “California will once again be a leader for the rest of the nation by taking these efforts to reduce the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in livestock.”

Groups representing the meat industry in California are not pushing back against the measure, saying animal producers are already phasing out antibiotics for nonmedical uses. However, some industry groups are raising concerns about requiring farmers to obtain prescriptions for antibiotics needed by sick animals rather than continuing over-the-counter purchases. Small cattle ranchers in remote areas may have difficulty getting prescriptions from a licensed veterinarian, says Justin Oldfield of the California Cattlemen’s Association.



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