I confess to be somewhat puzzled by the statements made by leaders of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association and Willamette Egg Farms in Saturday's Associated Press article regarding Oregon legislation to curtail antibiotic overuse on farm animals.

Here’s the OVMA President’s quote:

Unlike in human medicine, on a farm it's critical to treat the herd at the first signs of a bacterial infection, said Charles Meyer, a Grants Pass veterinarian and president of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association.

"When symptoms tell us the disease process is going to start, it will go through that pen of cattle," Meyer said. "The best way to stop it before it spreads like fire is by administering antibiotics" to the whole herd.

A bill limiting preventive use would result in more animals getting sick and dying, increased drug use and a rise in antibiotic resistance, Meyer said.

Here’s the Willamette Egg Farms quote:

"I would hate to lose our ability to use antibiotics on a case by case, as needed basis," said Gordon Satrum, CEO of Canby-based Willamette Egg Farms, which houses hundreds of thousands of egg laying chickens. "If we had some sick birds, we would want to be able to use the drugs and get them healed up."

Satrum says his company has not routinely fed antibiotics to its chickens for 10 years, but instead requires staff to go through foot baths, wear uniforms and disinfect their hands every time they come in contact with the animals.

At first blush, it almost appears that they are talking about a different bill. Senate Bill 920 places absolutely no restriction on giving antibiotics to sick animals. None. Zero. Further, the bill allows farms to continue giving antibiotics preventatively to contain a herd outbreak on a case-by-case basis. 

What SB 920 does is prohibit the practice of routinely giving low doses antibiotics to animals to prevent disease. The operative term, as Mr. Satrum says himself, isroutine”. Routine, low dosing of antibiotics is how resistant bacteria are bred – and it is happening every day on factory farms, at grave risk to public health [See Consumers Union literature review, and recent studies published in Nature and Frontiers in Microbiology, and new data  published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science]. 

Put another way, most of us agree that we should vaccinate a roomful of schoolchildren, but should never feed those same kids daily, low doses of antibiotics just to keep them from getting sick. The same goes for animals. 

Unfortunately, the federal government refuses to address routine disease control; SB 920 would, and that’s a key reason why leading local medical groups have endorsed SB 920: OHSU, Oregon Medical Association, Oregon Nurses Association, and Oregon Pediatric Society [See OHSU and OMA joint testimony, and fact sheet of key supporters].

So you have a bill, endorsed by medical leaders, that prohibits routine disease prevention, while still allowing farmers to treat sick animals and do some disease prevention when there is a real danger of a herd outbreak. 

That would appear to satisfy Mr. Satrum's concerns, especially since he also appears to forgo routine antibiotic use (good for him). So it is unclear what the basis of Mr. Satrum's opposition is.

In the case of Mr. Meyer, it appears that he believes that the bill’s discretion for disease prevention is still too restrictive. Given how generous that discretion is, I wonder if he opposes any restrictions on routine disease prevention at all. If that’s the case, it would be a bad idea to put all antibiotics under a vet’s prescription, as he recommends, because we would see nothing change.

Future news stories might want to push on this issue further; if indeed SB 920’s opponents think that routine disease prevention is not a problem, that ought to be out in the open, and subject to the full force of scientific inquiry on the matter.