California Antibiotic Ban Assists Shift to Healthy Food Movement

October 26, 2015

Jim Patterson writes about California’s new law banning the regular or long-term use of antibiotics to promote growth in all commercially marketed livestock.

By Jim Patterson, US diplomat, San Francisco resident and human rights advocate

Increasingly, food-marketing decisions are made in cities and states rather than in the U.S. Congress. California last year 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 fighting to continue old management and production methods most consumers now see as inhumane to chickens.

Now California has passed the strictest law in the nation on the use of antibiotics as a “management” tool in growing livestock for market. The use of antibiotics in livestock production has long been an economic and health problem in agriculture.

Animal scientists long ago discovered 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.

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 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 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 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 in other economic areas. 

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 items other than food. Smart food marketers moved away from that thinking in the 1970s and profited handsomely. 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 “best practice” 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 without approval of the US Department of Agriculture and other traditionally important federal food marketing bodies.

Consumers and marketers have an interest in a safe food supply. The divisiveness among these groups, apparent as recently as 2011, has largely been replaced with cooperation and better understanding of our sophisticated food marketing system. This is an important signal for a healthier and more just food marketing system.

About Jim Patterson: Human Rights Advocate Jim Patterson is a writer, speaker, and lifelong diplomat for dignity for all people. In a remarkable life spanning the civil rights movement to today’s human rights struggles, he stands as a voice for the voiceless. A prolific writer, he documents history’s wrongs and the struggle for dignity to provide a roadmap to a more humane future. Learn more at