The development of antibiotics was one of the great public health advances of the 20th century. But many common antibiotics aren't working as well as they used to, which has left thousands of people a year getting sick and dying of what not long ago were easily curable diseases.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but many public health officials point to one major culprit: the widespread use of antibiotics in raising animals for food.
The US government has been slow to move on the issue. The use of antibiotics for livestock here today is pretty much where it was in most of Europe until a few years ago.
“At that time there was no control,” says Dutch infectious disease specialist Dik Mevius. “So economics drove (veterinarians) and farmers to use antibiotics” more or less freely.
Mevius headed up recent efforts in the Netherlands to curb the use of the antibiotics in livestock, motivated by growing evidence that overuse of antibiotics in livestock is spurring the evolution of bacteria that are resistant to drugs, and that those dangerous “superbugs” are jumping from animals to people.
Eight years ago, the European Union moved to address the problem by banning one common practice, the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.
But Mevius says that narrow ban didn’t work in the Netherlands. He says Dutch farmers simply turned to other drugs, ostensibly used to prevent diseases that often crop up when livestock are raised in crowded conditions
So in 2009, Mevius helped forge an agreement to move Dutch farmers to more sustainable practices. Since then, antibiotic use has plummeted by 50 percent.
Fast forward to the US today, where about 80 percent of all antibiotics are given to animals.
Late last year, the federal Food and Drug Administration asked drug companies to voluntarily stop marketing the growth-promoting benefits of antibiotics to farmers. The companies are largely complying, but critics like California State assemblyman Kevin Mullin say that’s nowhere near enough.
Mullin is the author of a bill being considered by the Assembly this week that would ban the sale of livestock and poultry products in California from animals that have been given antibiotics for “nontherapeutic” uses — things like promoting growth or preventing disease.
Mullin says his bill is meant to “preserve the effectiveness of life-saving antibiotics for human medicine and help reduce the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria.”
The democrat from South San Francisco says the bill is inspired by the standards now in place in European nations like Denmark and the Netherlands.
And he says the key is that it “is going to be mandatory, as opposed to the voluntary FDA approach.”
Not surprisingly, big livestock and poultry producers have been lobbying hard against Mullin’s bill.
“It won’t work in California and it won’t work in America,” says Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation.
“We’re not Europe,” Mattos says, “we’re America. We have 300 million people here. You can’t kill every chicken that gets sick, you’ve got to treat it.”
Assemblyman Mullin says his bill wouldn’t prevent producers from treating sick animals, just from using the widespread practice of dosing animals with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick.
Mattos denies his industry does that. And he says the bill would also be unworkable because it would reach across state lines.
Mattos says 90 percent of California’s beef cattle comes from out of state. “And those cattle will not follow this bill.”
But supporters say, by its very nature, a problem like overuse of antibiotics requires a broad solution.
“Microbes and resistance genes know no boundaries,” says Stanford University infectious disease specialist David Relman. “There is no possible way to draw a boundary around state or national lines and say, 'here is where we can stop being concerned.' It simply isn’t that way.”
Assemblyman Mullin says he hopes stalled congressional legislation will gain momentum from California’s work on the issue.
But for that to happen, California has to actually get to work. And even Mullin acknowledges that bringing European-style regulation of animal antibiotics to the US is a tough sell, and that his bill faces an uphill battle in the Assembly.