California governor vetoes ‘unnecessary’ livestock antibiotics bill

Consumer and environmental groups cheer California governor Jerry Brown’s veto of antibiotics bill, calling for tougher legislation

The governor of California on Tuesday vetoed a first-in-the-nation state law to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock production and said lawmakers should look for “new and effective ways” to prevent antibiotic overuse.

The bill would have outlawed the use of antibiotics for growth in animals and required all antibiotics be prescribed by a veterinarian.

Some consumer and environmental groups cheered the veto, calling the state bill too similar to the FDA’s existent measures and too weak to make any sort of material change.

Governor Brown agreed. “Scientists around the world are warning that we are overusing these life-saving medicines in both human medicine and to raise animal”, said Governor Jerry Brown in a one-page veto message. The governor described the proposed law as a unnecessary duplication of the FDA plan. He directed the state Food and Agriculture Department to work with legislators “to find new and effective ways to reduce the unnecessary antibiotics used for livestock and poultry”.

Nearly 30m pounds of antibiotics are used in animal production annually, according to a recent FDA count, or roughly 80 percent of all antibiotics used. About 10 percent of the drugs applied to production are mixed into feed or water to promote livestock growth, according to an industry estimate.

In April, the FDA issued a “guidance” document (pdf), carrying nearly as much weight as a formal regulation, to set a three-year period for drug makers to end the sale of medically important antibiotics as a livestock growth promotant and to require veterinary approval of antibiotic use in the future. “We made it clear we are working with FDA to implement its plan,” said a spokesman for the Animal Health Institute, a trade group for pharmaceutical companies.

“Clearly, the governor is not going to accept good intentions and fig-leaf solutions to tackle this problem”, said Jonathan Kaplan of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “In vetoing this bill, the governor has called for strong action to curb unnecessary antibiotic use in California.”

As the largest agricultural state, California is poised to set a national trend in antibiotic use. Control of antibiotic resistance in bacteria is “a top national security and public health priority,” the White House said in a September 18 executive order that spelled out a five-year action plan to curb antibiotic resistance.

Those who opposed the bill argued that livestock producers would continue to use the drugs in the name of disease prevention. Routine use of preventive antibiotics, critics say, allows producers to crowd animals into unsanitary feedlots and barns, helping to breed drug-resistant bacteria, which can then infect humans.

“Antibiotics should be used on the farm only for treatment of sick animals, for a limited amount of time, as antibiotics are used in human disease treatment”, said Elisa Odabashian of Consumers Union, responding to the proposed legislation.

Overuse of antibiotics in humans and livestock have been blamed for the rise of drug-resistant bacteria. A 2008 report by Pew Charitable Trust called for the end to sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock production.

A follow-up report last year from Johns Hopkins University said “additional scientific evidence has strengthened the case that these (livestock) uses pose unnecessary and unreasonable public health risks” of allowing bacteria to develop resistance.

Makers of animal drugs expect limited impact from the FDA plan because, for the most part, they produce a broad range of products, such as vaccines, antitoxins, disinfectants and nutritional supplements in addition to antibiotics, for humans, pets and food animals.

Some segments of the livestock industry believe the drive to control antibiotic use is a veiled attack on the conventional, large-scale agriculture that provides abundant food at low cost to Americans. They blame drug-resistant bacteria on over-use of antibiotics by humans, though many scientists dispute that claim.

In his veto message Governor Brown noted that at least two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths are caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the US each year.

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