Once again, San Francisco is poised to become the first city in the nation to take a legislative stand on a controversial topic. Its Board of Supervisors is set to vote tomorrow on an ordinance to require disclosure about the use of antibiotics by meat and poultry producers.

The proposed ordinance does not, however, require the meat and poultry producers to take action. Rather, it seeks to require large grocery chains to gather information annually from their meat and poultry suppliers and provide it to the city.

San Francisco’s Department of Environment would post the information about the meat and poultry operations’ use of antibiotics in their animals. The ordinance requires grocers to maintain documentation of their suppliers’ antibiotic use policies.

Consumer watchdog groups and environmentalists such as the Environmental Working Group and the Natural Resources Defense Council are supporting the proposed local law while industry groups, including the California Grocers Association, are opposed to it.

Jeff Sheehy, appointed in January to represent the Board’s 8th District, introduced the ordinance June 20. A Board committee of three — including Sheehy — unanimously approved it Sept. 27, forwarding it to the full 11-member body for a vote at tomorrow’s meeting.

“The proposal would also require city departments procuring raw meat to conduct an audit of their meat purchases of the year prior to this proposal’s enactment,” according to the digest version of the legislation in board members’ packets for tomorrow’s meeting.

“These city departments would be required report to the (Environment) Department information regarding the use of antibiotics in the purchased meat, and an estimate of when and whether they may be able to transition to procurement of meat raised without the routine use of antibiotics.”

The goal
Sheehy and other San Francisco board members and city officials contend the ordinance will not only provide consumers with information about their food is produced, but will also put pressure on meat and poultry producers to reduce the use of antibiotics in their animals.

The use of antibiotics in animals used for human food is contributing to the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria, according to public health officials around the world.

Every year in the United States antibiotic-resistant bacteria sicken 2 million people, killing 23,000 of them according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC lists the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria as one of the top five health threats facing the United States.

“Overuse of antibiotics in meat production is an issue we have been concerned about,” Debbie Raphael, director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, said in a statement when Sheehy introduced the ordinance.

“Knowledge is power when it comes to our health and the environment.

“The public has a right to know whether the raw meat and poultry they purchase is produced using antibiotics in ways that can encourage the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria.”

San Francisco elected officials cannot compel specific antibiotic labeling information on meat and poultry packages because the subject is one of federal jurisdiction.

The mechanism
By requiring large grocers — defined as those with at least one store in San Francisco and a worldwide total of 25 or more locations — to gather antibiotic use policies from meat and poultry suppliers for public dissemination, Sheehy and others say they will force companies to review their supply chain partners.

The 25-or-more grocers, including Walmart, Costco, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Safeway, would be required to collect information from producers on several points:

  • Average number of days of antibiotic use per animal;
  • Percentage of animals treated with antibiotics;
  • Number of animals raised; and
  • Total volume of antibiotics administered.

Grocers would also be required to back-up the reporting via evidence such as a third-party certification. About 110 stores in San Francisco would be required to comply if the ordinance is approved. Violators could be fined up to $1,000 per day, per violation. The annual reporting requirement would kick in six months from approval.

“Under the proposal, grocers for whom compliance would be infeasible may apply to the Department for a waiver from some or all reporting requirements,” according to the digest version of the ordinance.

Though the proposed ordinance would apply only to grocers selling meat or poultry within San Francisco, its impact could reach protein producers across the country and around the globe. Regardless where their suppliers are located, the San Francisco grocers will be required to collect information from them to provide to the city for publication.

Environment Department Director Raphael told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper this past week that she hopes consumers will shift to buying meat with lower antibiotic content once they have access to that information.

One of the three Board committee members who voted in favor of the ordinance, Sandra Lee Frewer, told the Chronicle she would like to see the city do more to force industry to reduce antibiotic use.

“I’m assuming that this is a first step,” Frewer told the Chronicle.

Frewer’s comments alluded to a 2015 California bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown that restricts the use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry unless  it is prescribed by a veterinarian. That law goes into effect in January 2018.

The opponents
Finding themselves in the crosshairs of the proposed ordinance, grocers are saying the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is off target.

“… this proposal is focused on the production of meat products and treatment of animals while under the control of producers and is not about the safety of products while in grocers control,” according to a letter sent to the Board by Timothy M. James, senior manager of local government relations for the California Grocers Association.

“We believe the city should continue its leadership in regards to EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) with this issue and work directly with producers who control antibiotic use, instead of taking the more difficult route of simply regulating grocers.

“Unfortunately, this ordinance is determined to hold grocers responsible for information for which they have no control over and is more easily retrieved by the city directly from producers.”

The grocers’ association contends several “adjustments” should be made to the proposed ordinance:

  • Use of the information provided by grocers by the Department of Environment;
  • Depth of information required to be provided by retailers; and
  • Retention of documentation received by grocers from producers.

“… and, most importantly, providing retailers liability protection while providing information for which they have no control or ability to compel,” James wrote in his letter.

The proponents
An array of environmental, consumer and medical groups are on record supporting the San Francisco ordinance. Statements from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group are at the head of the line of supporters, but a number of other organizations have aligned with them on this issue, all signing a letter of support sent to the city:

  • Alliance of Nurses for a Healthy Environment;
  • Antibiotic Resistance Action Center;
  • Milken Institute School of Public Health;
  • George Washington University;
  • Center for Food Safety;
  • Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention;
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest;
  • Clean Water Action;
  • Food & Water Watch;
  • Food Chain Workers Alliance;
  • Health Care Without Harm;
  • Healthy Food in Health Care;
  • Keep Antibiotics Working;
  • Physicians for Social Responsibility;
  • San Francisco Bay Area Chapter Prevention Institute;
  • Roots of Change; and
  • San Francisco Marin Medical Society.

“With the rise of antibiotic resistance, it’s critical that we use antibiotics less frequently so that they’ll be effective when our lives depend on it,” NRDC senior attorney Avinash Kar said in a written statement. “That is why more and more consumers are making the choice to buy meat from animals raised without the routine use of antibiotics.”

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) cited statistics and science to support its position in a statement on its website.

“… 70 percent of medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used to treat farm animals raised for food, and that much of that use is on animals that are not sick,” according to the EWG.

“In a study published this year, researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine reported a sevenfold increase in drug-resistant bacterial infections among children, specifically for the family of bacteria that includes E. coli and salmonella.

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