Large industrial farms routinely give antibiotics to healthy animals, and Big Ag and Big Pharma have no intention of ending this practice.
But what happens next doesn’t follow the stereotypical script. “Heavy-handed, bureaucratic government regulators who take joy in making businesses miserable” have failed to halt this practice. At best, they’ve issued a voluntary guidance. Meanwhile, “cold-hearted capitalists who put short-term profits above all else” have stepped into the void to offer up solutions.
So… who flipped the script?
Consumers are increasingly curious about the origins of their foods and aware of the problem associated with overusing antibiotics on livestock and poultry—namely that the routine use of antibiotics on food animals leads to superbugs, which infect people.
Thus preferring, if not demanding, antibiotic-free meat, consumers are creating demand.
Major actors in the food industry have responded. Perdue Farms no longer uses medically-important antibiotics on the vast majority of their chickens.[i] Tyson Foods will get there shortly.[ii] Chipotle and Panera Bread don’t serve meat raised on antibiotics, and they advertise it.[iii] Same goes for Shake Shack, Elevation Burger, and Epic Burger.[iv] All of Chick-fil-A’s chicken will soon be antibiotic-free.[v] All of McDonald’s chicken will soon be free of medically-important antibiotics.[vi] Carl’s Jr has an antibiotic-free burger.[vii] The list goes on.
As McDonald’s said of their antibiotics decision, “Our customers want food that they feel great about eating— all the way from the farm to the restaurant.”
While restaurants are responding, what about the consumer experience in grocery stores? Can consumers make informed choices about the many meat products they see? Consumer Reports suggests not, that the “no antibiotics” label, among several similar labels, is only meaningful if it is USDA verified or backed by a private certifier.
Even then, consumers only know which meats were raised without antibiotics, the best of the best. Polling shows that 83% of consumers want to know about the worst of the worst, i.e. the meats where antibiotics were used routinely on healthy animals, either to promote growth or as a prophylactic against disease.
That’s why this week, Maryland PIRG called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to act on a seemingly-stalled petition filed two years ago, which urges the agency to create labels for consumers. Meat raised with antibiotics. Meat raised without antibiotics. Meat in which antibiotics were used for therapeutic reasons only.
It’s simple enough. And when consumers see “raised with antibiotics,” they can translate that to “contributes to antibiotic-resistant superbugs.” Consumers can then make the choice to avoid that label.
Finally, back to the aforementioned government regulators… Perhaps the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) won’t bar reckless and routine use of antibiotics on livestock, despite lawsuits and other attempts to make it do so. But surely USDA can take action to put information in the hands of consumers. Doing so would accelerate the positive trends we’re already seeing in the marketplace.
State Director, Maryland PIRG
Emily directs strategy, organizational development, research, communications and legislative advocacy for Maryland PIRG. Emily has helped win small donor public financing in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County, Montgomery County, and Prince George's County. She has played a key role in establishing new state laws to to protect public health by restricting the use of antibiotics on Maryland farms, require testing for lead in school drinking water and restrict the use of toxic flame retardant and PFAS chemicals. Emily also serves on the Executive Committees of the Maryland Fair Elections Coalition and the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working. Emily lives in Baltimore City with her husband, kids, and dog.