While Americans generally need to go to a doctor if they want a course of antibiotics, farmers don’t have the same requirement if they want to give antibiotics to animals. They can inject them whenever they want. Such laxness explains why agriculture accounts for about 70% of U.S. antibiotic use, and why farms are a big reason that antibiotic resistance has been growing so rapidly.
But now California is cracking down. A new law signed by Governor Jerry Brown at the weekend will require farmers to get a vet’s prescription for therapeutic uses of antibiotics. It also bans the everyday use of antibiotics for preemptive disease prevention and growth promotion. It will come into effect in January 2018; it’s the first law of its kind in the nation.
The law “addresses an urgent public health problem,” Brown said in a signing statement. “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 life-saving advances in medicine.”
Using antibiotics for nonacute reasons raises the risk that bacteria develop resistance to the drugs. Up to 2 million people in America get resistant bacteria infections every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 23,000 people die from them. Recent reports have warned we could be entering a “post-antibiotic era” when these treatments are no longer effective against easily treated diseases like tuberculosis.
In 2013, the FDA introduced guidelines asking drug makers to label products for “treatment, control, and prevention of specific diseases” (i.e., not growth promotion), and several meat producers, including Perdue, now say they will only use antibiotics when their animals are actually sick. (McDonald’s and other chains have also said they will phase out chicken raised with antibiotics.) Still, these commitments are voluntary and somewhat open to abuse. California is unique in putting a line in the sand by passing the first actual antibiotic-resistance law. We’ll see if other states follow its lead.