Why consider buying antibiotic-free meat

Buying antibiotic-free meat is important, but not for the reason you might think.

chicken-meat-grocery-store-Sergey-Ryzhov-via-Adobe-stock
Sergey Ryzhov via Adobe Stock | Adobe Stock

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If you buy meat at the supermarket, you want to trust that whichever product you choose has been sourced in a way that doesn’t put the health of your family or your community at risk.

But there’s a good chance the meat at your local supermarket came from a factory farm that routinely gives medically important antibiotics to animals that aren’t even sick. That’s a huge threat to the efficacy of our lifesaving medicines, and therefore our health. Here’s why:

  • Every time we use antibiotics to kill off bacteria, we roll the dice that some of that bacteria will evolve to evade the medicine targeting them.
  • If and when the mutant bacteria survives and reproduces, it becomes a “superbug” — a health threat that is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat with antibiotics.
  • Every year, as many as 160,000 Americans die from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

That’s why it’s absurd that rampant overuse of antibiotics is still the status quo on many factory farms. It contributes to the growth and spread of these superbugs.

Our supermarkets aren’t making the grade

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“Superbugs in Stock,” an Oct. 13 report co-authored by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and several members of the Antibiotics Off the Menu coalition, recently graded the top grocery stores in the United States on whether they’re acting to eliminate the routine use of antibiotics in their private label meat supplies.

Of the 12 largest grocery chains in the U.S., the majority were found to be failing to meaningfully address the issue of antibiotic overuse by their meat suppliers — eight of the 12 receiving “F” grades.

We shouldn’t throw away our life-saving medicines to produce a slightly cheaper pork chop or hamburger.

Supermarkets can impact the meat industry in two ways: their private label meat sourcing and the materials they share with customers about the products they buy. Our favorite grocery stores can eliminate the routine use of antibiotics in the meat they package and sell directly, as well as educate consumers about which products are made without routine antibiotics, so we can make better-informed decisions before the check-out line.

Everyday consumers, too, can bring about change: By leveraging our wallets to buy only meat raised without the routine use of antibiotics, and by raising our voices to hold the stores we buy from accountable.

Supermarkets should step up

From grocery stores to restaurant chains to leaders in the meat industry, PIRG is working to convince major companies to sell meat raised without the routine use of medically important antibiotics. And we’ve made big progress.

We helped convince fast food giants Wendy’s, Subway and KFC to commit to no longer serving meat raised with antibiotic overuse. And we won a commitment from chicken producer Tyson to end the overuse of medically-important antibiotics in its supply chain.

Now, PIRG staff and members are encouraging grocery chains to step up and implement policies to stop the overuse of our life-saving medicines.

The stakes? Without more action, the global death toll for drug-resistant superbugs could be up to 10 million annually by 2050.

We can stop needlessly wasting our most important medicines, and keep them effective for the humans and animals that need them the most.

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Matt Wellington

Director, Public Health Campaigns, PIRG

Matt directs PIRG's public health campaigns, including campaigns to address the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections by stopping the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and to reverse the alarming increase in teen nicotine addiction by banning tobacco products marketed to kids. Matt is an avid outdoorsman and loves to play the drums and harmonica.

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