Antibiotic resistant infections kill tens of thousands of Americans each year. So it was encouraging to see two actions to reduce the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms taken in October: A new policy in California to restrict antibiotic overuse on livestock, and an announcement by Subway that it will phase out the sale of meat raised with antibiotics over the coming years.
First, on October 10, California Governor Jerry Brown made California the first state to put meaningful restrictions on the routine use of antibiotics on healthy animals, with his signing of California Senate Bill 27. The new law, which takes effect in 2018, will require more veterinary oversight of antibiotic administration and help close a loophole in federal antibiotics policy by limiting the use of antibiotics for disease prevention. Existing policy, under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, bans the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, but does not restrict the use of disease prevention antibiotics. As we have previously explained in our report Weak Medicine, this disease prevention loophole allows farmers to keep giving animals growth promotion antibiotics simply by claiming that the drugs are for disease prevention purposes.[pdf]
The newly passed California legislation continues to allow antibiotics to be administered for disease prevention if there is an “elevated risk of contraction of a particular disease or infection” according to a veterinarian.[Bill text] However, abuse of this limited allowance for disease prevention antibiotics should be tempered by the law’s stipulation that antibiotics may not be administered to animals in a “regular pattern.”
Second, on October 20, the fast food chain Subway announced that it will phase out its sales of meat raised with antibiotics.[pdf] Specifically, Subway has committed to stop serving chicken raised with antibiotics by the end of 2016, and to stop serving pork and beef raised with antibiotics by the end of 2025. (The beef industry is moving more slowly than the poultry industry to reduce antibiotics – see more below.) The news is a victory for our friends at U.S. PIRG, which had been running an extensive campaign calling on Subway to eliminate antibiotics in its products.
Although this October news is promising, there is still a long way to go. As of November 2014, only about 5 percent of meat sold in the U.S. was antibiotic-free. And according to a recent Friends of the Earth report, only five of the top 25 U.S. fast food chains have meaningful policies to limit antibiotics use by the suppliers of their meat. [pdf]
The beef industry in particular is moving slowly to reduce antibiotic use. When it comes to poultry, three of the biggest producers in the U.S. -- Foster Farms, Perdue, and Tyson -- have all committed to end or cut back antibiotic use in chicken. And sales of antibiotic-free chicken grew 34 percent in 2014. (Similar data on beef sales is not readily available.) But as reflected in Subway’s lengthy timeline for ending sales of antibiotic-free beef, America’s beef producers have moved slowly in their efforts to reduce antibiotic use. According to this Wall Street Journal article, there are a number of reasons why: The beef industry is more fragmented than the poultry industry; cows take longer to raise than chickens; and beef prices are higher than chicken prices, so the beef industry is more wary of making changes. Nevertheless, there is no reason why the beef industry can’t overcome these challenges. Many beef producers (just not the behemoth companies) are already raising cattle without antibiotics, and some major chains have started to sell beef raised without antibiotics, including Chipotle and Carl’s Jr.
The actions taken in October by the state of California and Subway represent two very different fronts in the push to limit antibiotic resistance: government policy and corporate action. With the continued overuse of antibiotics on factory farms posing a grave threat to human health, progress must continue quickly on both fronts in order to protect against antibiotic resistance, and to maintain the effectiveness of one of modern medicine’s most important tools.