The Board of Supervisors asked the Department of Environment in 2014 to find ways to reduce meat from animals raised on unnecessary antibiotics. Two years later, San Francisco still doesn’t have a specific plan. (Courtesy photo)

Just say no to drugs in your meat

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San Francisco progresses where Washington, D.C., stalls. In 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom directed The City to issue same-sex marriage licenses, 11 years before the U.S. Supreme Court protected the right. When it comes to guns, San Francisco leaders pass commonsense laws, while federal lawmakers make excuses.

Now, lobbyists are delaying meaningful federal action to combat a leading health threat: dangerous, antibiotic-resistant germs. The City must rise against this inertia and ensure the food we eat won’t hurt San Franciscans.

We often eat meat from animals that were given unnecessary drugs. Farmers give their healthy livestock drugs to promote weight gain and prevent diseases stemming from poor diets and stressful, dirty conditions. But these antibiotics are the same ones that treat our urinary tract infections, strep throat, food poisoning and other serious diseases. The meat industry’s misuse of our antibiotics is causing germs to adapt and become resistant to medicine we need.

Studies routinely find these dangerous, resistant germs on raw beef, pork and poultry in grocery stores. Recently, Consumer Reports tested bacteria in ground beef from stores in 26 cities, including San Francisco. It found more resistant bacteria on ground beef from cows given antibiotics than ground beef from sustainably raised cows.

If these germs infect us, treatment can be expensive and sometimes impossible. In 2011, antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in ground turkey infected 136 people and killed one. In 2013, a similar outbreak from chicken infected 634 people and hospitalized 241. In the U.S., antibiotic-resistant germs make more than two million people sick every year and kill at least 23,000.

“Antibiotics in the food supply contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance, which is a huge health problem,” San Francisco’s Health Officer Tomás J. Aragón told me.
But the problem with antibiotic resistant bacteria isn’t limited to health. Dangerous germs can travel through air and water and wind up in soil when manure is applied to crops.

“Addressing antibiotics in meat production is not only a public health issue, but an environmental one, too,” Debbie Raphael, Director of the San Francisco Department of Environment, told me. “Antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread from feedlots to the environment, potentially interfering with the activity of naturally occurring microorganisms in air, land and water.”

It’s good to know The City recognizes the problem because Washington, D.C., has done little to help. Although the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, Margaret Hamburg, said she would treat the issue as if her hair was on fire, the agency hasn’t regulated the misuse of antibiotics with urgency. In 2013, it caved to lobbyists by establishing a weak, voluntary program.

In the absence of federal action, California stepped up with clear requirements. We became the first state to prohibit the regular use of antibiotics on healthy animals, whether for promoting growth or preventing disease. But not all meat in San Francisco’s stores comes from California. The lack of federal oversight still puts San Franciscans at risk of painful, untreatable infections.

In 2014, our Board of Supervisors asked the Department of Environment to find ways to reduce meat from animals raised on unnecessary antibiotics. Two years later, we still don’t have a specific plan. But I’ve been told the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit that sued the FDA over this issue, is working with The City.

“We are very excited to be working with the Department of Environment to explore ways in which The City can help encourage the responsible use of antibiotics in meat production and address the public health crisis,” Avinash Kar at NRDC told me.

I hope San Franciscans don’t have to wait much longer and that these ways aren’t limited to a website and posters. Antibiotic-resistant germs are a serious problem requiring urgent, serious action. San Francisco must hold restaurants and grocery stores accountable for drug practices in their meat supply. We can’t let lobbyists put us in danger.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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