See update at bottom of story.

With the threat of antibiotic-resistant germs on the rise, California Gov. Jerry Brown is poised to sign tough restrictions on administering antibiotics to livestock.

Some public health experts contend that the overuse of antibiotics in cattle, pigs and other farm animals has contributed to the worldwide spread of bacteria that are resistant to life-saving drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that such pathogens now kill 23,000 Americans, and sicken another 2 million, each year.


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The legislation in California, which would surpass federal recommendations and requirements, effectively would stop ranchers from regularly giving antibiotics to healthy animals. In the livestock industry, it has been common practice to give antibiotics to animals in their feed and water to promote faster growth or to compensate for unsanitary conditions in crowded feeding spaces.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now recommends that pharmaceutical companies stop selling antibiotics to fatten up livestock. Also, starting next month a veterinarian’s prescription will be required to put some antibiotics into livestock feed and water.

The California legislation goes a step beyond that. It would ban the use of antibiotics for promoting growth and restrict their use for preventing disease, allowing that only when there is an elevated risk to an animal.

“I think it’s significant that a state that has a leadership role like California takes a position like this,” said Bob Martin, director of the food systems policy program at the John Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future. “I can see it actually influencing both Oregon and Washington,” both of which have been looking at curtailing the use of antibiotics in livestock, he said.

Martin also said he wouldn’t be surprised if California eventually banned the sale of meat not raised under these standards, as it has done with out-of-state egg producers that don’t comply with its prohibition on small chicken cages.

“This could be, given California’s size and influence in the national economy, very significant,” he said.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing worry for public health experts across the globe. The World Health Organization said in 2014 that “resistance to common bacteria has reached alarming levels in many parts of the world and that in some settings, few, if any, of the available treatments options remain effective for common infections.” The organization warns that it’s a “very real possibility” the world could enter “a post-antibiotic era” where “common infections and minor injuries” lead to death.

“The CDC has listed antibiotic resistance as one of the top health threats facing the nation,” said Avinash Kar, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supports the California legislation. “All of us rely on antibiotics. The development of antibiotics changed the face of medicine, changed the course of our history. They are often referred to as ‘miracle medicines’ by medical professionals, for a reason. They really are one of the foundational elements of our medicine,” he said.

Health authorities say the overuse of antibiotics can lead to the buildup of resistant bacteria in animals, which in turn could lead to people getting antibiotic-resistant infections directly from meat or from other sources that get contaminated.

Industry is not fighting the legislation. Justin Oldfield, vice president of government relations for the California Cattlemen’s Association, said the bill “doesn’t restrict our ability to use antibiotics in livestock production. It just puts a framework around that use in a way that promotes judicious use within the industry. [The legislation] is not an all-or-nothing type of bill.”

Brown, the California governor, showed his interest in cutting the use of antibiotics in livestock last year. At the time, Democratic State Sen. Jerry Hill of San Mateo authored legislation that would have codified the FDA’s recommendation to stop using antibiotics to fatten animals. But Brown vetoed the bill, saying he wanted lawmakers to send him legislation that went further.

Hill responded this year by introducing another bill, but his proposal languished in the legislature for months as public health advocates complained that it remained too weak. It wasn’t until earlier this month, when Brown inserted himself into legislative negotiations, that Hill toughened the proposal to silence critics.

Given his involvement, Brown is widely expected to sign Hill’s legislation, Senate Bill 27, within the next couple of weeks. If signed, it will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. No other state in the nation has yet passed such a law.

[Oct. 12, 2015 update: Sen. Jerry Hill’s livestock measure was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. In a letter to members of the State Senate, Brown said “The science is clear that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock has contributed to the spread of antibiotic resistance and the undermining of decades of life-saving advances in medicine.”]