Survey Says: Overwhelming Majority of Meat Companies Use Antibiotics

Unnecessary drug treatments for farm animals is a common and risky problem.
Antibiotics in animal feed boost growth and ward off illness, but superbugs pose a human health risk. (Jupiterimages/Getty Images)
Jul 5, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

There's just one trained microbiologist serving in Congress, and she's bringing her skill set to the table. Her name is Louise Slaughter, and she's on a mission to fight the threat of superbugs caused by the American food industry's addiction to antibiotics on farms.

Slaughter, D-NY, made it her mission back in February to promote transparency in meat and poultry production. The fruits of her labor are the 74 pages of a recently released document detailing antibiotic use among American producers. The document reveals that although a handful of suppliers are committed to antibiotic-free meat and poultry products, an "overwhelming majority" of them routinately give healthy animals low doses of antibiotics.

Slaughter's office reached out to 60 of the largest U.S. food manufacturers, restaurants, and retailers, including Whole Foods, Chipotle, McDonald's, and Cargill.

These companies were requested to provide specifics on their policies toward antibiotics, including the percentage of meat they use that's raised without any antibioticis; the percentage that's raised with antibiotics only for therapeutic reasons; and the percentage that's raised with routine use of antibiotics [typically added to animal feed].

Antibiotic use is a touchy topic: farmers argue it's necessary to combat and ward off illness on farms, while critics point out that overdosing animals—to accelerate their growth and ward off disease in filthy, crowded factory farms—is giving rise to drug-resistent bacteria that stands to explode into a public health threat for humans.

Results of Slaughter's research have revealed that companies who source their meat exclusively from farms that don't use antibiotics are few and far between‚ among them Whole Foods, Niman Ranch, Applegate Farms, and Chipotle. The remaining 56 companies responded with varying explanations for their current practices. 

Food Safety News details some of the responses:

Applebees said it works closely with suppliers "to ensure animal health products, such as antibiotics, are used in a judicious and appropriate manner....

Cargill said that it recommends its suppliers "work closely with a veterinarian" and works with its producers to ensure the judicious use of approved antibiotics....

Burger King said its suppliers are not allowed to use antibiotics for growth promotion purposes....

Au Bon Pain said it was seeking to reduce its purchasing of products raised with routine antibiotics... but the company also said that because it is a regional brand and relatively small it "does not possess the market power to alter the way suppliers do business."

McDonald's said it prohibits suppliers from using antibiotics belonging to the classes of compounds approved for use in human medicine to be used solely for growth promotion—a policy the company established years ago. 

Also, according to Food Safety News, the majority of companies did not answer the specific questions Slaughter asked about what percentage of meat was sourced from animals treated routinely, medicinally, or without any antibiotics.

Earlier in June, the Journal of Animal Science ran an article explaining the U.S. Department of Agriculture's progress on alternatives to antibiotic use—a promising sign that it's possible to combat foodborne illnesses like E. coli and salmonella without giving rise to superbugs.

Still, Slaughter says this is no time to rest. She is urging American consumers to utilize information gleaned from the study when shopping, and she is pressing the FDA and her colleagues in Congress to strengthen laws limiting antibiotic use.

"Until we do," she said, "the routine use of antibiotics will continue to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten human health."

Does antibiotic use on farms bother you? Let us know below, and share this important story with your friends. 

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