California antibiotics law should be national

Food marketing decisions are increasingly being made outside bureaucratic channels of Congress and the slow-acting Department of Agriculture. From table eggs to antibiotic-free meats, our food supply is changing, from California to the rest of the nation.

Last year, the Golden State enacted a bill to provide greater space for caged laying hens. Eggs marketed in the state, regardless where produced, must comply with the law. California consumers and egg producers have adapted to the marketing change. Producers in other states are still fighting to continue old management and production methods many consumers now see as inhumane. The market for eggs has changed and producers in other states can change as well, or move into other products.

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Now California has passed the strictest law in the nation on the use of antibiotics as a management tool in raising livestock to market weight. The use of antibiotics in livestock production has long been a controversial economic and health problem for farmers and consumers.

Animal scientists long ago discovered that routine application of antibiotics to livestock maintained animal health and produced added weight to all animals marketed to the food supply. As producers sought to maximize returns from their investment in livestock, it was inevitable they would begin to treat antibiotics as a relatively low-cost input to produce greater market returns. Colleges of agriculture have graduated thousands who promote antibiotics as sound livestock management, despite consumer concerns.

Regular large-scale application of antibiotics became insurance of greater returns to producers without concern for the health consequences of consumers. The result was so-called "superbugs," or microorganisms nearly resistant to antibiotics.

Consumer groups took note and mobilized to reduce or eliminate antibiotics from the food supply. Farm groups, especially those in favor of the production status quo of large-scale antibiotic management for livestock growth, fought this losing fight for too long.

Farm groups and livestock producers in favor of conventional production science of antibiotic overkill failed to change with a changing market. Reasons for resistance vary. Traditionally, farmers are quick to adapt new technologies that reduce input costs, especially labor. Application of antibiotics was a cheap management practice for a period of time. Farmers in California must now find other management practices more in tune with consumer demand to produce livestock for market.

Farmers fear that their input costs will rise due to the ban on regular use of production antibiotics. This may be true. They fear consumers will turn away from livestock products to other food choices, perhaps high-protein soy products or organic meats. Producers stand to benefit, via higher retail prices, from a change in consumer diets if this should happen.

The food-marketing trend in recent years is that more sophisticated consumers demand more sophisticated food products and more sophisticated food production and marketing. This is a global phenomenon as countries gain wealth, education and sophistication.

Old marketing ideology held that foods had to be produced at the lowest cost possible. This assured a higher standard of living by giving consumers more of their disposable income for other items. Smart food marketers moved away from that thinking in the 1970s and profited handsomely. But some food marketers like livestock producers held to old management science of antibiotic application, consumer be damned.

California's new law bans the regular or long-term use of antibiotics to promote growth in all commercially marketed livestock. Antibiotics may only be used in the event of animal sickness as determined by a veterinarian. During times of known health risks to livestock, application may extend for a longer, though prescribed, period. This policy is considerably more restrictive than federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines, which allow supervised antibiotic application for disease prevention and herd management.

The California standard in livestock production comes as food retailers and some livestock marketers are moving toward antibiotic-free products. This is a healthy marketing move for producers and consumers taking place largely independent of the Department of Agriculture and other traditionally important federal food marketing bodies.

Consumers and marketers have an interest in a safe food supply. Better control of antibiotic application to livestock gives consumers more confidence in their food supply. In the absence of a national policy to control antibiotics in the food supply, other states should follow California's leadership.

Patterson is a longtime Washington diplomat and a Bay Area contributor.