A new survey suggests that a vast majority of U.S. consumers demand antibiotic-free meat. To meet the threat of antibiotic-resistant infections, Congress is considering a ban on several classes of antibiotics from meat and poultry production. But a farm industry coalition contends that any threat to human health resulting from antibiotic use in livestock is negligible.
The rise of antibiotic-resistant infections
Antibiotics were introduced into the food supply in the 1950s when farmers learned that drugging livestock produced bigger animals that grew faster with less feed. Farmers spent less to produce more and meat became less expensive for consumers. But public health experts, including Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, say agricultural use of antibiotics –80 percent of all antibiotic use in the U.S., has caused the rise of virulent antibiotic-resistant infections.
Wanted: more antibiotic-free choices
Consumers are getting the message. In a recent nationwide survey, Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports magazine, found that 86 percent of respondents would like more antibiotic-free meat choices in the supermarket. More than 60 percent said they would be willing to pay more for antibiotic-free meat.
FDA resists antibiotic regulation
Government is getting into the act too, reluctantly. In March federal judge Theodore Katz ordered the FDA to do something about the runaway use of antibiotics in livestock. Katz issued a ruling to revive antibiotics regulation that the agency abandoned last year. It intends to force the FDA to conduct hearings with drug companies on the safety of using certain drugs such as penicillin and tetracycline in livestock. If the drugs are deemed unsafe, they must be banned.
The FDA appealed the ruling, raising the ire of House Democrat Louise Slaughter of New York. Slaughter is the author of H.R. 965, The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would restrict the agricultural use of seven classes of antibiotics.
Congress takes on big agriculture
In a statement, Slaughter, a microbiologist, said antibiotic-resistant infections “kill more Americans than AIDS.” She called the FDA appeal “nothing short of a dereliction of duty.”
A coalition of agricultural industry groups disagrees. It sent a letter to Slaughter saying federal approval and regulation of antibiotics is already a stringent process and the benefits of using antibiotics in livestock production outweigh the human health risks. The coalition told her that the antibiotics she seeks to ban with H.R. 965 are essential for preventing and controlling diseases and for promoting nutritional efficiency.
Affordable antibiotic-free choices
It could be while until public health authorities sort out the issue of whether drugging livestock to increase profits does indeed contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections. Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable antibiotic-free options in the meat counter according to the Consumers Union survey.
“We’ve proved meat without antibiotics doesn’t have to be expensive,” said Jean Halloran, the Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union. “We compared antibiotic-free meat prices to the prices of other national meat products, and found the cost to be comparable, and in some cases lower than traditional products.”
Secret shopper results
Secret shoppers hired by Consumers Union visited 136 supermarkets in 23 states to survey the availability of drug-free meat. The leader in the industry is Whole Foods, which sells no meat produced with antibiotics. Four other chains, including Giant, Hannaford, Shaw’s and Stop & Shop had beef, pork, chicken and turkey available in antibiotic free varieties.
Publix and Trader Joe’s offered some cuts of antibiotic-free meat, but Sam’s Club, Food 4 Less, Food Lion and Save-A-Lot offered no drug-free choices.