Noodles & Co. and California Gov. Jerry Brown have this in common: In the absence of a strong federal policy, both have acted to stop the overuse of antibiotics on large-scale industrial farms.
On Oct. 10, Brown signed a first-of-its-kind law (Senate Bill 27) to restrict antibiotic use on livestock and poultry, but his role was much greater than a signature. The governor worked behind the scenes to ensure that the final product was strong, and, in the previous year, he vetoed a weaker bill, calling it inadequate to address the problem.
Both actions — one in the marketplace and the other in the halls of government — help to ensure that our life-saving medicines continue to work for generations to come.
So integral to modern medicine, antibiotics are beginning to fail. In this country, antibiotic-resistant infections kill 23,000 people annually. And the problem is growing. Antibiotic-resistant infections worldwide could kill more people than cancer by 2050.
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics in all settings contribute to bacterial resistance. While not the whole of the problem, roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are for use on animals, not people. Unlike how we experience antibiotics when prescribed by our doctors, many livestock and poultry farms routinely give antibiotics to animals that aren’t sick in order to make them grow faster, or as a prophylactic against disease brought on by unsanitary conditions.
After repeated exposure to antibiotics, animal bacteria, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, can develop resistance, and when those bacteria contaminate meat and are then consumed by humans, the bacteria can cause serious infections. In addition to handling and eating meat, antibiotics-resistant bacteria can travel with farm workers back to their homes and communities. Also, the bacteria can migrate to human populations through airborne dust blowing off farms and water and soil polluted with contaminated feces.
Antibiotic-resistant foodborne bacteria now cause an estimated 440,000 illnesses in the U.S. every year. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote about this problem in a 2013 report: “Much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has adopted voluntary guidelines to address antibiotic overuse on livestock and poultry operations, but the guidelines only address growth promotion and fail to tackle the routine use of antibiotics as a prophylactic against disease, and most antibiotics can be used for both purposes at similar dosage levels.
The drug companies themselves consider FDA’s actions less than material. Said the CEO of Zoetis, one the largest animal drug companies in the country, about the guidelines: “We don’t expect this to have a material impact on our future financial results.”
What separates California’s new law from the unambitious FDA guidelines is that it prohibits the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and it limits the overuse of antibiotics for disease prevention. The latter will be permissible only when there is an elevated risk, and the drugs cannot be administered in a regular pattern.
While the California law only affects one state, it’s a big one both in terms of the role California plays in the country and the amount of meat produced in the state. Ideally, it will spur other states to follow suit.
In contrast, the actions of large national restaurant chains have no force of law, but they do have a national impact. And the move to serving meat not raised on antibiotics appears to be more than a fad in the restaurant world.
Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Chick-fil-A have committed to meat raised without antibiotics. Regional chains, such as Elevation Burger, Epic Burger and Super Duper, have made similar commitments. Carl’s Jr. has one antibiotic-free burger.
McDonald’s has committed to stop serving chicken raised on our lifesaving medicines, which then pushed Tyson Foods, their major supplier, to follow suit. We’re urging the “eat fresh” brand, Subway, with more restaurants in the U.S. than any other chain, to be the next to heed consumer demands for meat raised without antibiotics.
Together, the California law and the actions of major players in the marketplace are making a political point: The FDA guidelines are not the be-all and end-all solution. More important, these actions collectively make a serious dent in the routine overuse of antibiotics on large industrial farms. Doing so will limit the growth and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria – superbugs — and that’s a big win for public health.
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