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California senator wants to ban drugs in animal feed

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)--One of the state Senate's leaders wants to ensure that cattle, poultry and pigs raised in California aren't routinely given antibiotics, a practice consumer advocates say can lead to the development of drug-resistant bacteria.

A Senate committee April 21 will hear legislation authored by Majority Leader Dean Florez that would bar ranchers and farmers, starting in 2015, from giving feed containing antibiotics to healthy animals to promote growth and ward off disease.

The bill would also prohibit schools, starting in 2012, from serving students meat from animals that have been routinely treated with antibiotics and would require state and local government facilities to try to buy antibiotic-free meat for their kitchens.

"We don't wake up every morning to take an antibiotic to help ensure that we don't get sick," said Florez, a Democrat from Shafter. "There are better ways than giving every single animal an antibiotic."

Consumer advocates, pointing to studies that date back to 1963, warn that routinely giving livestock low doses of antibiotics helps develop drug-resistant bacteria that can threaten human health.

"There have been ample studies--reports by the UN, agricultural organizations, the World Health Organization--over a number of years that show that nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in food animals places humans at increased risk of infections and higher number of treatments and treatment failures," said Elisa Odabashian, director of the West Coast office of Consumers Union.

Drug-resistant bacteria can be transmitted to people through poorly cooked meat and other unsafe food preparation practices, human to human contact and animal manure, said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"The medical community really stands united behind the position that there is an issue that we need to address," she said. "The folks that don't are the animal industry, and they are not experts on human health."

Representatives of agricultural groups say that banning the routine use of antibiotics would force farmers and ranchers to use more drugs when their animals get sick.

"What Senator Florez is trying to do is take away tools we use to keep animals healthy," said Noelle Cremers, director of natural resources and commodities for the California Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest agricultural group. "We don't see that as being a good way to provide safe food for consumers."

The California Poultry Federation, which represents processing plants and 300 to 400 poultry farms, sent Florez a letter arguing that the bill would hurt California producers economically without affecting their out-of-state competitors.

Bill Mattos, the federation's president, said his members don't use antibiotics to promote animal growth.

"We do use them for disease prevention in small amounts," he said. "It has no effect on human resistance whatsoever."

But Mellon said that giving healthy animals low doses of antibiotics over a long period increases the likelihood that they will develop drug-resistant strains of bacteria. Treating sick animals with higher doses over a short period "is much less likely to elicit resistant organisms," she added.

The bill is scheduled to be considered April 21 by the Senate Food and Agriculture Committee, which Florez, D-Shafter, chairs.

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