After obtaining federal preemption of state and local laws requiring disclosure of bioengineered content in foods with the enactment of the Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, the food industry potentially faces a new challenge on disclosure at the local level with the recent passage of a San Francisco ordinance addressing antibiotic use.

On October 3, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a measure that would require major grocery stores to disclose information on the use of antibiotics associated with meat and poultry products carried in their stores. Under the law, large retailers would collect data annually from their meat and poultry suppliers on their antibiotic policies and practices and submit this information to the San Francisco Department of the Environment for public posting. The law would apply to grocery store chains that have more than 25 locations worldwide.

Supporters of the law contend that it will educate consumers and that this ‘top-down’ advocacy approach would compel meat and poultry producers to eliminate the use of antibiotics for non-medical reasons, such as growth promotion. Grocery store chains opposed the measure, claiming that the law focuses on activity under the control of producers and is unrelated to the safety of products in the stores.

Analysis and Outlook

A number of notable public interest groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in support of the San Francisco ordinance. Other groups on the letter included: Center for Food Safety; Center for Science in the Public Interest; Environmental Working Group; Food & Water Watch; Keep Antibiotics Working; and the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

These groups’ participation in the debate over the San Francisco ordinance suggests that there could be attempts to enact measures in other localities. However, the political dynamics in San Francisco make it conducive to passing this type of food disclosure law, and it might be difficult for these interest groups to replicate this effort and find such a receptive audience in other cities.

While it may appear unlikely that this disclosure effort on the use of antibiotics will gain traction in other cities or states, it certainly behooves the food industry, especially meat and poultry producers and grocery stores, to monitor this issue in the event this effort gains strength. Frustration over inaction by the federal government on antibiotic resistance issues will continue to intensify, and these interest groups could view state and local governments as appropriate arenas for pursuing policy goals.