California passes strictest law to date regulating antibiotic use in agriculture

In response to recent growing concerns about the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria, on Oct. 10 California governor Jerry Brown signed the strictest U.S. law to date regulating the use of antibiotics in agriculture. The new law will attempt to minimize the use of medically important antibiotics by requiring pre-approval by a veterinarian before human antibiotics can be used, and then only for disease treatment or prevention, not to promote growth.

Currently, the USDA regulates antibiotic use on a federal level, but not as strictly, allowing farmers to use human antibiotics to prevent diseases that have not yet occurred or to promote growth in livestock as well as treat sick animals. The recent measures are happening in response to growing concern over antibiotic resistant bacteria.

“I think the bill is basically doing something that we in California have been doing all along, which is phasing out antibiotic use,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation.

The law parallels an executive order signed by the president in Sept. 2014, which will require all medically important antibiotics to be phased out of use in agricultural settings by 2018 in an effort to minimize the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Alternatively, according to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the current concern about antibiotic use in agricultural settings is exaggerated and antibiotics are necessary for animal health and continued production of necessary amounts of animal products for human consumption.

“The use of antibiotics today is essential to ensure sufficient animal production to feed the planet,” said Bernard Vallat, director of OIE, in a press conference. “Without antibiotics there would be supply problems of animal protein for the human population.”

Subway works on developing a viable antibiotic-free plan

Subway is among the restaurants developing new policies about antibiotics in their animal proteins, but it’s a work in progress. The restaurant chain, which boasts 27,000+ locations in the US, first ambitiously committed to “serve animal proteins that have never been treated with antibiotics” in any of their US stores, according to a press release of Oct. 20.

This ambitious goal was met with a lot of criticism, with antagonists arguing that antibiotics are necessary to produce animal protein on large scale. Revisions to the policy issued three days later include provisions that will more closely parallel standards provided by the FDA in their guidance for industry 209 and 213.

According to these standards, suppliers may not use antibiotics that are used in human medicine for growth promotion in animals. In addition, all antibiotic use must be “overseen, pre-approved, and authorized by a licensed veterinarian” before they are administered. These changes reflect a widespread concern over antibiotic resistant bacteria, and mirror what other restaurants are attempting as well.

“Today’s consumer is ever more mindful of what they are eating, and we’ve been making changes to address what they are looking for,” said Dennis Clabby, executive vice president of Subway’s independent purchasing cooperative.

According to a report issued Sept. 2015 by Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, and other health organizations, Subway’s antibiotic use policy scored a failing grade at 31%. Chipotle and Panera Bread topped the list with a total of 97% of the grading rubric. The rubric included elements such as having a good policy about antibiotic use and making the policy transparent to the public.

The new revisions allow for “responsible antibiotic use”, including treatment control, and prevention of disease, but does not allow human antibiotics to be used for growth promotion. This policy allows more flexibility for the farmers providing the animal protein and greater possibility that the goals will actually be met over the next couple years.

The first phase of their plan is to phase out chickens that have been raised with medically important antibiotics by March 2016, followed by turkey in 2016, and a complete transition in the following 2-3 years.

“A change like this will take some time, particularly since the supply of beef raised without antibiotics in the U.S. is extremely limited and cattle take significantly longer to raise,” said Clabby, “But, we are working diligently with our suppliers to make it happen.”