With limited federal action to reign in the routine use of antibiotics in livestock, a California legislator introduces a bill in hopes of keeping drug-resistant “superbugs” in check.

One California lawmaker wants to do what federal regulators have been unable to do: end the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed in order to slow the spread of drug-resistant bacteria.

Speaking at the state capitol in Sacramento on Tuesday morning, Assemblymember Kevin Mullin (D-22) was joined by infectious disease experts and advocates in support of his new bill.

“Resistance to antibiotics is an increasingly serious problem,” Mullin said. “The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recent voluntary regulations are not enough to stop the inappropriate use of antibiotics in livestock and leave the public’s health at risk.”

Antibiotics are routinely used in animal feed to promote growth and to ward off disease, but advocates say the practice needs to change for current antibiotics to remain effective for humans.

“If we used the same warped logic on our daycare and nursery school attendees as those who add antibiotics to animal feed, we would be sprinkling antibiotics into children’s PB&J sandwiches and milk to prevent infections and ensure better weight gain,” said Dr. John Bolton, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and former president of the Northern California Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “This would, of course, be quite insane.”

California is the fourth-largest state in the country for beef production, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. It also ranked number 12 in boiler chicken production and number six in turkey production in 2006, according to the latest figures from the California Poultry Federation.

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The more often bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the more opportunities they have to become resistant to them. Bacteria can learn these defenses from others simply by sharing the same space, including the stomachs of cows, chickens, pigs, and humans.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about two million Americans are infected with drug-resistant bacteria known as “superbugs.” About 23,000 of them die annually. The worst of the bugs, dubbed “the nightmare bacteria,” is carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae, which is fatal in half of all cases.

Exposure to antibiotics in livestock has also been linked to an increase in harmful bacteria in waste water, and resistant bacteria can be introduced into healthcare settings by farm workers seeking medical care.

A study released Tuesday in the American Society for Microbiology journal mBio found that entirely new strains of drug-resistant bacteria are being discovered in manure from cows that are routinely given antibiotics. At issue, the researchers said, is the fact that the manure is used to fertilize crops including raw fruits and vegetables, potentially introducing these superbugs further into the American food chain.

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Cami Gordon, co-chair of the Los Angeles Leadership Council for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has filed lawsuits against the FDA to spur them into action, said Tuesday that the new California bill would mandate that leaders act to keep antibiotics effective.

“We shouldn’t see the day when a mother can’t use antibiotics to treat her child’s strep throat because of livestock industry interests. FDA has acknowledged this health threat for nearly four decades, but has refused to take meaningful regulatory action,” she said.

Bill AB-1437 aims to reign in antibiotic use in agriculture, specifically in beef cows and chickens meant for human consumption. The bill proposes:

  • requiring that medically important antibiotics be used on farms only to treat sick animals or for a disease outbreak
  • prohibiting routine antibiotic use for animal growth or “disease prevention”
  • ensuring that antibiotic use on farms is supervised by a veterinarian
  • requiring reporting of livestock antibiotic use to the state, which will allow regulators and scientists to track progress in meeting antibiotic stewardship goals

The bill is supported by the Infectious Disease Association of California, the American Association of Pediatrics, California, Physicians for Social Responsibility, more than 25 medical school professors throughout California, and more than 35 public interest advocacy groups.

Read More: Experts Say New FDA Guidelines ‘Inadequate’ to Curb Antibiotic Resistance »

Following a series of federal court orders spurred by lawsuits filed by the NRDC, instead of following the law, the FDA appealed and issued new voluntary guidelines for antibiotic use on farms late last year.

The lawsuits stemmed from a 1977 FDA conclusion that antibiotics given in low doses to livestock would promote antibiotic resistance. Despite laws requiring them to act, the FDA did not.

Following two judges’ decisions in March and June, the FDA issued new voluntary guidelines asking antibiotics manufacturers to remove their products from over-the-counter status and place them under the supervision of veterinarians.

Antibiotic stewardship advocates, however, say that the voluntary measure will do little to solve the problem because the routine addition of antibiotics to animal feed can be classified as “disease prevention.”

The California bill, like similar, unsuccessful federal bills, aims to create stricter regulation, as well as greater transparency about the type and amount of drugs used in animals meant for human consumption.

Bills have been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to address similar issues, but none have been passed into law. Few have ever made it out of their respective committees, despite support from hundreds of medical groups, including the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.