Gov. Kate Brown recently disclosed that she plans to appoint an officer of Oregon’s largest factory farm – Threemile Canyon Farms – to the state Board of Agriculture. Friends of Family Farmers and a number of other groups are pushing back on the grounds that Threemile is a major polluter and owned by an out-of-state company, and that the Governor ought to appoint someone more representative of the average Oregon farmer (local and small/medium sized). More at the Statesman Journal and FFF's website.

OSPIRG doesn't have enough expertise on this matter to have a position, but it is clear that the Board of Agriculture plays an important role in shaping Oregon’s farm policy. We also know that Threemile Canyon was among the factory farms that lobbied the legislature to defeat SB 920, which would have curtailed antibiotics overuse on Oregon farm animals. Oregonian article and fact sheet

And, after re-reviewing Threemile Canyon's statements against SB 920 (here and here), I worry about what this appointment signals in terms of the Governor's stance on the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture -- a hugely critical public health issue.

The upshot of Threemile Canyon's case against SB 920 was as follows:

  • We care for our animals and use antibiotics responsibly; as a result our herd has been antibiotic free for four years.
  • SB 920 is unnecessary because the federal government is already handling the situation.
  • SB 920 will “create excess bureaucracy and a litigation machine that will be a detriment to Oregon farmers, cattle and consumers”. 

Their first point looks good at face value and might actually be good, but the devil is in the details. "Antibiotic free" doesn't always mean what it sounds like. The gold standard policy, which the country’s major chicken producers have already committed to, is to disavow the practice of routinely dosing their animals with low-level doses of medically important antibiotics for both growth promotion and disease prevention. This still leaves room to treat sick animals, occasionally prevent herd outbreaks, and to use other antibiotics that are for animal use only. None of the materials from Threemile Canyon indicate they have gone this far. I recently reached out to see if they would discuss this in more detail and will report back if I learn anything useful. 

Their second point is incorrect. Here are the facts. The Obama Administration, through the FDA, recently took two steps to address antibiotic overuse in agriculture: a) Asked the major drug companies to voluntarily stop selling medically important antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion; b) Required that all administration of medically important antibiotics be done under the “oversight and supervision” of a licensed veterinarian.

The central flaw in the FDA’s approach is its sole focus on growth promotion, which is only a small way in which antibiotics are overused. Most antibiotics are used to prevent disease caused by crowded or unsanitary conditions. Had the FDA focused on both growth and prevention, there would be no need for SB 920. Alas, that is not the case.

In other words, it doesn’t matter that antibiotic use is under the oversight and supervision of vets because vets are still allowed to prescribe routine, low doses of these drugs to "prevent disease". That is probably why the drug industry itself predicts that antibiotic sales will not decrease as a result of the federal government's action. That's the loophole SB 920 sought to close. My testimony to the legislature includes a more detailed, sourced discussion of this point.

Their third point is largely moot because it refers to a provision in an earlier version of SB 920 that was removed (to allow private citizens to enforce the law through the courts). In fact, SB 920 didn't require the government to do much of anything, and gave farmers broad discretion to exercise their judgment. In exchange for the discretion, big factory farms like Threemile would have had to publicly disclose their antibiotic over on an annual basis. If Threemile operates as responsibly as they say, it is hard to see what the problem is.

It is unclear why Threemile Canyon officials would put forward such flimsy arguments against the bill -- especially if Threemile is already "antibiotic free" as they claim. Given the immensely urgent public health threat this matter presents, and the support in the medical community for action, one would like to see better from such a sizable agricultural operation.

Does this appointment give any clues as to where Gov. Brown will land on the antibiotics in agriculture issue? To be fair, she took office right in the middle of the SB 920 debate this spring, and was preoccupied with more basic political challenges and thus deserves the benefit of the doubt on the issue of preserving antibiotics. But we also know that California's new law curtailing antibiotics overuse passed because of the strong support of CA Gov. Jerry Brown. Thus any future success on this issue in Oregon will hinge on where Kate Brown lands. And to be perfectly honest, this appointment makes me nervous about where she stands. 

To be continued...