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Consumers Union positions on antibiotics in meat and poultry production
(Excerpt from Meat on Drugs, Consumer Reports, June 2012)

Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, recommends the following actions for consumers, grocery retailers, the meat and pharmaceutical industries, Congress, and government agencies, to end the use of antibiotics in livestock production except for the treatment of sick animals.

For Consumers

Our findings show that consumers often have access to meat raised without antibiotics in many of their local supermarket chains, and those who don’t would like the option. Consumers can make a significant contribution to ending use of antibiotics on animals by shopping at stores that carry meat without antibiotics and buying those products. If a store doesn’t offer any of these products (or doesn’t carry a preferred type or cut of meat) consumers should request that it do so. a quick conversation with the store manager, or even staff member in the meat department, can go a long way toward changing the store’s practices.

Prices for these products are generally higher than conventional meat, especially if they are organic, but there are often more affordable cuts, such as chicken thighs, drumsticks, or whole birds, for shoppers on a budget. even replacing just one conventionally raised cut of meat with one that was raised without antibiotics on each shopping trip (or even once per month) will help start moving the production system in the right direction.

Consumers must also be diligent label readers. In particular, consumers can have a high level of trust that organic meat and poultry, and meat labeled “no antibiotics” backed by “USDA process Verified” or another independent certification, are products from animals that were not raised on these drugs. However, consumers should not rely on products with a “Natural” label—that term refers only to treatment of the end product and does not say anything about how an animal was raised. Help with deciphering the many other labels found in supermarkets appears in the “Reading the Labels” section of this report.

For Grocery Retailers

Supermarkets have an opportunity–indeed, an obligation–to be a part of the solution in the face of this growing public health crisis. as the link between livestock producers and consumers, grocery retailers have the capacity to turn the tide on the overuse of antibiotics by requiring that their suppliers avoid these drugs for both growth promotion and disease prevention in food animals. Supermarket chains should make “no antibiotic use on any meat and poultry sold in our stores” company policy.

Recognizing that this transition will not happen overnight, grocery retailers should begin to have conversations with meat suppliers to determine their policies for using antibiotics in raising livestock and urge them to begin phasing out this practice. Beginning with their store brands, retailers should set timetables for transitioning entirely to meat raised without antibiotics.

For Congress

While consumer pressure may be a more immediate catalyst for moving livestock producers away from using antibiotics, a long-term and more permanent legislative or regulatory solution would be ideal. a bill that has been introduced in Congress, the preservation of antibiotics for Medical Treatment act (paMTa), would prohibit the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock production (except when treating sick animals) and thereby protect the efficacy of these drugs for human use. In light of the public health implications of losing the efficacy for people of these critical drugs, Congress should pass this legislation immediately.

For the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The FDA recognized decades ago the inherent problem with the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production. after years of inaction, the agency in early 2012 issued new guidelines for the livestock and pharmaceutical industries requesting the “judicious use” of antibiotics in animals. However, these guidelines are merely voluntary, and while they attempt to discourage the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in animals, they continue to support the widespread use of these drugs for disease prevention (albeit under the guidance of a veterinarian, which is a step in the right direction). The FDA states it will review these guidelines again in three years to gauge progress and take additional action if needed.

The FDA should strengthen these guidelines and establish a mandatory ban on the use of antibiotics in animal production except to treat sick animals.

For the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Consumers who want to buy meat raised without antibiotics should be able to feel secure that the labels on those products are meaningful (i.e. that there is a definition for them) and that their truthfulness is verified by someone. Our shoppers found several instances of labels that could mislead consumers to believe they were buying meat from animals that were not given antibiotics, when in fact that is not necessarily the case. and although the USDA is supposed to approve all labels on meat and poultry packages prior to use, our shoppers and researchers found several unapproved labels in the marketplace.

The USDA should improve its supervision of labels related to antibiotic use in several ways.

The USDA/FSIS currently conducts its reviews behind closed doors and does not disclose what specific labels it has authorized or which companies have been authorized to use them. The USDA should post on its website all authorized labels, the products they are authorized for, and the label definition, to help consumers understand the labels.

The USDA should establish one approved phrasing for such labels, such as “no antibiotics ever used,” and restrict all labels to that usage. That would significantly reduce consumer confusion.

The USDA should establish a formal standard defining this label (the USDA indicated to Consumer Reports that it does not allow use of ionophores and prohibits antibiotic use at any stage of an animal’s life, if meat is to carry a “no antibiotics” label, but the full definition is not published on its website). This would help both companies and consumers understand label requirements and facilitate better enforcement.

The USDA should check up on “no antibiotics” labels to verify their truthfulness, and take action against labels that do not conform to its established definitions.

For the Meat and Poultry Industries

Giving cattle, pigs, turkeys, and chickens antibiotics in their food and water to improve their growth and prevent disease has become standard practice, especially at very large feedlots and mass-production facilities. For the sake of preserving these drugs for treatment of sick people, it is imperative for meat and poultry producers to stop treating animals with these drugs prophylactically and for growth promotion. In doing so, they will take a step toward solving the public health problem of antibiotic resistance and decrease the chance of “superbug” infection outbreaks.

The livestock industries in many other countries have already transitioned away from the use of antibiotics in food animals without detriment to production or sales. U.S. meat producers should follow suit.

For the Pharmaceutical Industry

To keep antibiotics effectively working to treat infections, there must be limits on their use for non-essential purposes. as the developers and manufacturers of these drugs, the pharmaceutical industry has a responsibility to limit their use in animals.

The FDA recently called on the drug industry to cease marketing antibiotics for use in animal feed and water for the purpose of growth promotion. Consumers Union fully supports this request. However, we urge the industry to go further and to cease selling antibiotics for disease prevention in animals. Drug companies would never market antibiotics to humans for routine continuous use to prevent disease or promote growth, without a prescription, nor should they continue this practice for animals. We call on the pharmaceutical industry to limit antibiotic sales to the livestock industry solely for therapeutic use on sick animals.

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