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Anya Vanecek's picture

It's an old story: Large industrial farms routinely give antibiotics to healthy animals, with Big Ag and Big Pharma encouraging the practice. 

This is new: what's happening now doesn't follow the stereotypical script. “Heavy-handed, bureaucratic government regulators who take joy in making businesses miserable” sit by. At best, they've suggested changes. 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 their foods and its affect on health. We're aware of the problem associated with overusing antibiotics on livestock and poultry: the rise of drug-resistant superbugs, which infect people.

Preferring, if not demanding, antibiotic-free meat, consumers are creating demand. We're changing the market.

Major actors in the food industry have responded. Foster Farms just launched two antibiotic-free chicken product lines. Perdue Farms no longer uses medically-important antibiotics on the vast majority of their chickens. Tyson Foods will get there shortly. Chipotle and Panera Bread don't serve meat raised on antibiotics, and they flaunt it. Same goes for Shake Shack, Elevation Burger, and Epic Burger. All of Chick-fil-A’s chicken will soon be antibiotic-free. All of McDonald’s chicken will soon be free of medically-important antibiotics. Carl's Jr has an antibiotic-free burger. The list goes on--and it's growing.

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 make changes, what about grocery shoppers? Can consumers make informed choices about the many meat products they see? Consumer Reports suggests not, that many "no antibiotics" labels aren't meaningful.

Even then, consumers only see 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 U.S. PIRG called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture 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.

Frankly, we deserve to know whether the food on our shelves contributes to the rise of potentially-deadly infections. And we have the power to make it happen.

Click here to urge USDA to take action on antibiotic labeling.

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