A turning tide on antibiotic-raised meat
By Consumers Union on Wednesday, May 28th, 2014
” A post-antibiotic era – in which common infections and minor injuries can kill– is a very real possibility for the 21st century.”
“If we don’t act now, our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives.”
You’d think that these kinds of alarm bells sounded by not-so-alarmist organizations as the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control (respectively) about antibiotic-resistance would have policy makers scrambling to protect the efficacy of these life-saving drugs in every way possible.
But entrenched as we are in our reliance on these wonder medicines, reining in the overuse of antibiotics takes a serious effort.
To be fair, doctors and other medical professionals are doing their part. While the CDC estimates that about half of the antibiotics prescribed to people are unnecessary, efforts are underway by doctors and providers to reduce use of antibiotics in humans and there is some evidence that use is beginning to decline.
Not so in livestock. About 80% of all antibiotics in the US are sold for use in livestock production, which means that even if doctors (and patients) do their part, we’re not going to get a handle on antibiotics overuse until the meat industry does its part.
Meat producers often give animals regular, low doses of antibiotics to make them gain weight faster and to prevent disease in crowded, unsanitary conditions common on today’s industrial farms. This can create dangerous ‘superbugs’ resistant to antibiotics that can spread to our communities through the air, soil, water, farm workers and the meat we eat. While the FDA has asked drug companies to stop marketing antibiotics to make animals grow faster, the guidance is voluntary and full of loopholes. In fact, the drug companies themselves have said they expect it to have little impact on sales or profits.
Feeding antibiotics to healthy animals is a practice that many companies (and consumers) want no part in – and their demand for no-antibiotics meat is beginning to change the way these drugs are used on farms.
National grocery chain Whole Foods led the way by requiring meat raised without antibiotics for all of its stores. Restaurant chains like Chipotle and Panera also now have similar requirements, and Chick-fil-A recently announced that it is working with its suppliers to ensure all of its chicken will be raised without antibiotics within five years.
One of the largest chicken producers in the US, Perdue, recently reported that over a third of its sales now come from no-antibiotics chicken products, with organic (which is inherently raised without antibiotics) its fastest growing market. And McDonald’s is now under pressure from consumer groups and even members of Congress to curb the overuse of antibiotics in animals raised for their meat. In addition, hundreds of hospitals and school systems have now also started shifting their meat purchasing to suppliers that don’t routinely use antibiotics – not to mention local businesses and restaurants too numerous to count.
In our own efforts to continue this marketplace movement, Consumers Union has been asking Trader Joe’s to join the ranks of these other businesses and help protect public health by phasing out meat from animals raised on antibiotics. So far the company has been non-committal (surprised? so are many of their customers – and even their employees) but recent surveys of store shelves show increased offerings of no-antibiotics meat such as ground turkey and pork products, and a chicken section that’s almost entirely no-antibiotics. All good steps from Trader Joe’s, but wouldn’t you love to see a commitment from TJ’s to end its sale of meat raised on drugs? We sure would.
As a shopper, you need to do your part too. Be a label-reader. Look for packaging or signs that indicate ‘raised without antibiotics’ in stores where you shop for meat. If you can’t find it, ask for it. Support stores and restaurants that source meat from responsible suppliers that don’t abuse antibiotics. Retailers – and in turn, meat producers – are getting the message that this is what consumers want. Let’s keep the pressure on.