California could become the first state in the country to implement strong regulation over the use of antibiotics for livestock. Supporters hope that could lead to tougher federal limits on such medications to control their use and prevent the spread of superbugs.
Gov. Jerry Brown is expected this weekend to sign into law a bill passed by the state Legislature last month.
If enacted, the measure would prohibit the use of medically important antibiotics in animals for the purpose of promoting their growth. It would also require a prescription from a licensed veterinarian.
“It's a significant step forward,” said Avinash Kar, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It represents a significant portion of U.S. livestock and it shows that it can be done.”
For years, some owners have included antibiotics in animal feed or drinking water to help animals gain weight without having to increase the amount they eat.
Public health advocates have criticized the practice, arguing such widespread use of antimicrobials has led to a rise in “superbugs” resistant to any current antibiotics and making them impossible to treat.
In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidance that called upon drugmakers to remove any indication of animal growth from labels of their medications. Two of the largest marketers did that voluntarily soon after the announcement.
Since the removal of such claims from drug labels, livestock owners have been banned from using antibiotics for those nonmedical purposes, requiring a veterinarian's prescription.
But the California measure goes further in banning meat producers from administering antimicrobial drugs for the purpose of staving off a potential disease, something public health advocates have argued creates a loophole that continued to allow for the regular use of antibiotics.
The bill would require the California Department of Food and Agriculture to collect data on antibiotic use in meat production, and calls for the development of best practice guidelines for useing antibiotics in livestock.
In May, the FDA issued draft guidance requiring drug companies that sell antimicrobial medicines for use in food-producing animals to collect and report sales data according to the species.
About 70% of medically important antibiotics are sold for food animals, according to the Pew Charitable Trust. According to the FDA, nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics were sold in the U.S. in 2011 for the purpose of meat and poultry production.
At 5.2 million head, California had the fourth-largest supply of cattle and calves in 2015, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
An estimated 2 million infections that occur in the U.S. each year are related to antibiotic resistance, according to the CDC, resulting in an estimated 23,000 deaths and around $20 billion annually in healthcare costs.