It's no longer a controversial ideas that there are too many antibiotics used in the raising of animals. (The FDA, in fact, just released a warning that human health is at risk because of farmers using too many antibiotics.) So, when California lawmakers passed a bill to become the first state in the nation to regulate antibiotic usage in animals, some felt this was an important first step towards national reform on how the drugs are governed.
Governor Jerry Brown felt otherwise. Instead of giving the bill his signature, he vetoed it. And while on the surface this seems like a bad move -- and perhaps reason to investigate which Big Food organizations are funding his reelection campaign -- it's actually just the opposite. Governor Brown's veto is vital to producing actual reform.
To understand why, it makes sense to hear from the Governor himself:
SB 835 would codify a voluntary Federal Drug Administration standard that phases out antibiotics use for growth promotion. Codifying these standards is unnecessary since most major animal producers have already pledged to go beyond the FDA standard.
There are two key elements to his explanation. First is the fact that regulations proposed by SB 835 are just rehashing the standards the FDA has laid out. It's like the federal government outlawed pumpkin spice, and then California lawmakers came forward and said, "We've taken the bold step of outlawing pumpkin spice." It's a redundancy, so what's the point?
The second key to the explanation is the word "voluntary," because that's really the whole point of this veto. The FDA regulations, and thusly the regulations copied by California legislature, are just that. Voluntary. Which is why they're not looked too favorably by those who are actually paying attention.
(I've already gone into great detail about the shortcomings of the FDA regulations, but here's a quick summary: Antibiotics can't be used for growth purposes, but they can be used for the prevention and containment of diseases. But when you're buying and using them, you don't need proof you're using them for the latter and not the former, hence a loophole big enough to drive a tractor through.)
Governor Brown isn't alone in his disappointment with the current state of antibiotics laws. Consumer groups were also on board with Brown's veto:
"Clearly the governor is not going to accept good intentions and fig leaf solutions to tackle this problem," says Jonathan Kaplan who heads the food and agriculture program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. "Instead we need to lift the curtain of secrecy that now shrouds the industry's abuse of these drugs."
Those "fig leaf solutions" he mentions is a poetic way to discuss what could have happened if Governor Brown didn't veto the bill. Namely, that lawmakers would answer pleas from constituents about curbing antibiotic usage by pointing to this new regulation while pulling a muscle patting themselves on the back. In this case, no regulation is better than bad regulation.
Just what is good regulation? A start is ending the "curtain of secrecy" Kaplan is referring to. One of the bills that was up for vote -- but quickly withdrawn due to lack of support -- was AB 1437, which not only made it tougher to obtain antibiotics, but also required farmers to provide information about their antibiotic usage. (In legal speak, this information would be "reported on an Internet Web site.") As it stands now, no one knows who is using what.
This has all sorts of ramifications to public health. Here's one of the more worrisome quotes from the warning from the FDA:
Most troubling, health advocates say, was a rise in the sale of cephalosporins, a class of drug that is important in human health, despite new restrictions the F.D.A. put into place in early 2012. The report showed an 8 percent increase in the sale of those drugs in 2012, confirming advocates' fears that the agency's efforts may not be having the desired effect. Sales of those drugs rose by 37 percent from 2009 to 2012.
Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are for animals, and yet, we have no idea who is using them, and for what. Governor Brown's veto provides a chance for lawmakers to put together a bill that will actually combat antibiotic overuse. Now, it's on them to actually do so.
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