Antibiotic Free Meats: What Are They, and Why Do They Matter?
In April 2014, Seattle City Council passed a resolution that supports a national and statewide ban on the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in animal agriculture. There are currently bills in the House and Senate that address this practice as well. But why is the use of antibiotics in agriculture a concern?
The Use of Antibiotics in Animals
It is estimated that of all the antibiotics used in the United States, 80% are given to agricultural animals. Antibiotics are used unnecessarily in these animals to promote growth, or to prevent diseases that result from animal overcrowding and unhygienic living conditions. Concern about the growing level of drug-resistant bacteria has led to the banning and reduction of such sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animals in many countries in the European Union and Canada. However, in the United States, this practice remains legal.
Antibiotic resistance is a global health concern that results in strains of bacteria that do not respond to standard antibiotic treatment, and can result in severe-life threatening illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the use of low doses of non-therapeutic antibiotics in animal agriculture “contributes to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food-producing animals. These resistant bacteria can contaminate the foods that come from those animals, and persons who consume these foods can develop antibiotic-resistant infections.” Antibiotic resistant bacteria can also be transmitted through the environment and water supply. The CDC reports that each year 2 million people are infected and 23,000 people will die from antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Until there is a governmental ban on this practice, we can all help by supporting farming practices that are sustainable, support a healthy environment, and that do not harm our communities. This includes purchasing meats that have been raised without the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics. But how do you know which product to choose with so many different labels and health claims on foods?
When shopping for meat, look for the following certifications:
This is a third-party certification that must meet the USDA’s criteria. Organic foods cannot be irradiated, genetically modified or grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or sewage sludge. The organic label on meat and poultry means that it was not treated with hormones or antibiotics and was fed only organically grown feed (with no animal byproducts). Organic meat animals must have access to the outdoors, and grass-eating animals must have access to pasture.
American Grassfed Certified
This is a third party certification that applies only to beef, bison, goat, lamb, and sheep. All animals are fed only grass and forage from weaning until harvest and are raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots. Grassfed certified animals are never treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.
Animal Welfare Approved
Animal welfare approved certification is granted to independently-owned family farms that raise their animals outdoors on pasture or range. Antibiotic use is allowed only for sickness if recommended by a veterinarian and is not granted to producers who use growth hormones.
A Certified Humane label certifies that animals were never confined in cages or crates. It does not, however, require that the animals have access to pasture or range. It requires humane treatment in that poultry were not subjected to de-beaking and that animals are slaughtered with minimal suffering. The use of growth hormones is not allowed and antibiotics can be used only to treat sick animals as directed by a veterinarian. This label is available to corporate farms.
Because of the link between antibiotic use in food-producing animals and the occurrence of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, the UW Medicine Food and Nutrition Department has instituted a purchasing policy that will phase out the purchase of all pork and poultry products that are raised with the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics. This policy aligns with the recommendations of the nation’s scientific community including the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, and the World Health Organization and aims to improve the health of UWMC patients, staff, and community. We look forward to being a part of a change for the health and well-being of our patients, staff, and visitors.
Charlotte Furman, MS, RD, CD, has experience as a clinical dietitian at the University of Washington Medical Center where she is currently the Technology and Wellness Manager. In her free time Charlotte enjoys spending time outdoors with her family, cooking delicious meals, and playing with her new dog, Scout.
This post was originally published in the RD Blog. You can visit the RD Blog and see its archives if you have a UW Medicine ID.
2 Thoughts on “Antibiotic Free Meats: What Are They, and Why Do They Matter?”
On June 20, 2014 at 11:17 AM, Tonya said:
As someone who was raised on a farm and holds a degree in animal science, this is a disappointing article that implies farmers mistreat their animals and environment, and the meat they produce is unhealthy & not wholesome. There is no such thing as “antibiotic free” meat. In fact, meat by law cannot be labelled as such. Why? Because, by law, all meat (& milk) must be free from antibiotic residue. There are stiff penalties for violating this law & instances of violation are almost non existent. Did you know that 96% of all US farms are family owned? Big, small, organic, conventional…most of them are owned by a hard working family. It is simply not true that antibiotics are given to “prevent diseases that result from animal overcrowding and unhygienic living conditions”. An animal that is not properly cared for will not efficiently produce a wholesome product. Farmers do not mistreat their animals, because not only is mistreating an animal wrong, it also wastes the farmers income potential from that animal. Antibiotics can promote growth, but they are also given when animals are sick or to prevent disease. Some diseases are just prone to happen in livestock, no matter how fantastic their environments are. In April 2012 the FDA released antibiotic guidelines for farmers which you can find here: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm299802.htm . These guidelines remove the use of antibiotics solely as growth promotants. If you choose to eat specially labelled food products, that is fine. We are lucky to have the choice, thanks to all of our hardworking farmers. However, keep in mind it is all free from antibiotic residues & meets the same USDA requirements for safety.
On June 24, 2014 at 3:44 PM, Charlotte said:
Thank you for your response. You are correct, antibiotic free is not a claim that is authorized by the USDA since, as you state, there is a required withdrawal period for antibiotic use in animals prior to slaughter and meat is tested for antibiotic residue. However, The term ‘no antibiotics added’ may be used on labels if documentation is submitted to the USDA that sufficiently demonstrates that the animals were raised without antibiotics. The other certifications that I listed in the article also guarantee the same. Despite the fact that meat cannot be sold if it tests positive for antibiotic residue, this does not guarantee that antibiotics were not given in sub-therapeutic levels during the raising of that animal. Government estimates are that animal agriculture uses 4 times the amount of antibiotics than is used in healthcare, or about 30 million pounds of antibiotics. This elimination of routine or ‘non-therapeutic’ antibiotic use is supported by over 300 medical organizations. This is because the use of sub-therapeutic dosing does not kill bacteria but provides an environment through which bacteria can develop antibiotic resistance. In a recent document by the Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring system, a significant number of meat samples were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
I agree, this by no means indicates that all farmers use non-therapeutic doses of antibiotics in their animals. There are many farms that raise their animals in a sustainable manner and do not provide them with non-therapeutic doses of antibiotics. It is important that we support farms that have such sustainable agricultural practices. Treating animals with antibiotics when they are sick is of course a use that would not qualify as non-therapeutic and is necessary for the humane treatment of that animal. Just as doctors now have more strict guidelines by which to follow when administering antibiotics to patients, the same should be said for agriculture. The FDA guideline is just that, it is a guideline, and it is only a voluntary recommendation which is not regulated. If you would like to read more there is a wonderful summary article on this topic that was published in the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy that can be found at http://www.iatp.org/documents/no-time-to-lose
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