SACRAMENTO -- A bill that would clamp down on the use of antibiotics in cattle and poultry is a pen stroke from becoming law in California -- so why aren't environmentalists happy?
The author of the legislation, state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, touts SB 835 as a critical early step in fighting an emerging national health crisis: the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which sicken more than 2 million people and cause 23,000 deaths every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotics are often given to food-producing animals to help them grow faster or use less food to gain weight.
The problem, environmentalists say, is that the law -- which Hill promotes as the first of its kind in the nation -- would be easy for industrial livestock operations to skirt. More than a dozen environmental and consumer advocacy groups oppose the bill, which cleared the Senate last week in a unanimous vote and now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature.
Hill's legislation codifies voluntary guidelines issued last year by the Food and Drug Administration to phase out the use of certain antimicrobial drugs in animals used for food. There is increasing concern among scientists that pumping the animals full of antibiotics that are also used to treat humans is contributing to the growth of deadly "superbugs."
The bill would prevent farmers from buying antibiotics over the counter, instead requiring a veterinarian's prescription, and bar livestock producers from employing the drugs for the sole purpose of promoting weight gain.
Combined with another bill he authored to curtail the overprescription of antibiotic drugs in hospitals, the Peninsula lawmaker said SB 835 represents a victory for public health. The second bill, SB 1311, has also cleared the Legislature.
"We will see a reduction in the use of antiobiotics," Hill said, "which will reduce the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and diseases in the state of California."
But critics say there is a gaping loophole in the bill that would allow veterinarians to prescribe antibiotics as a preventive measure, not merely for treatment. And the law wouldn't require the use of antibiotics to be tracked in order to measure the regulation's effectiveness, said Bill Allayaud of the Environmental Working Group. The superbug crisis is too serious, he said, for weak measures that could lull California lawmakers and regulators into complacency.
"We believe stronger medicine is needed," said Allayaud. "The loophole is too large and could make it so that practices don't change fast enough to combat a problem the World Health Organization calls a major global threat."
Hill claims the bill's opponents are making the perfect the enemy of the good. He notes a more stringent bill by Assemblymember Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, died in the Assembly Agriculture Committee this year without receiving a hearing.
Many of the agricultural groups that lined up against Mullin's bill are supporting Hill's, including the California Cattlemen's Association. Dave Daley, a fifth-generation cattle rancher from Butte County and one of the association's leaders, said SB 835 is a good compromise. He added that, while the overuse of antibiotics in food animals is a real problem, it's been exaggerated in news accounts and on social media.
"There's a perception that we're running around pumping antibiotics into animals that don't need them, which I find almost comical," said Daley. "It just ignores what we do as trained professionals."
Doniga Markegard, who raises grassfed cattle with her husband, Erik, on the San Mateo County coast, said she supports SB 835, but claims it doesn't address the root problem: the corn- and soy-based diet of cows in large-scale beef operations. The cows at Markegard Family Grass-Fed are never treated with antibiotics, she said.
"Cattle that are raised in feed lots and fed an unnatural diet," Markegard said, "will depend on drugs to keep their nutrition up."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.