I'm concerned about the use of antibiotics in farm animals and would like to find antibiotic-free meat and poultry products. Any suggestions?

February 2012


Dear Farm Aid,

I have a four-month-old and natural and organic food has become more important to me. I'm concerned about the use of antibiotics in farm animals, and would like to find antibiotic-free meat and poultry products. Any suggestions?

Thank you for your help in advance,

Molly S.
Philadelphia, PA

You're not the only one looking for antibiotic-free goods these days, Molly. The presence of antibiotics on the farm and in our food has recently been making headlines and generating concern, and for good reason. According to recent estimates from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), nearly 80% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to farm animals and there is growing worry about the impact this has on our food and our health.[1]

Risky Business

For the vast majority of the meat and poultry raised in America, the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics—meaning the application of antibiotics to animals that are not sick—is routine practice. Antibiotics are added to animal feed or water sources to increase growth rates and compensate for crowded living conditions, where illness can sweep through pens and infect hundreds or thousands of animals in a short span of time. Close to 28 million pounds of antibiotics—the very same ones used to treat human infections—were used for these purposes in 2009, the most recent year with available data.[2]

Evidence has been building for decades that on-farm antibiotic use has hastened the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Strains like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (popularly known as MRSA), antibiotic-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae (which causes pneumonia) and antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella have caused infections that are difficult to treat, painful and increasingly deadly. Recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have demonstrated this. Last year, for example, Cargill Meat Solutions recalled over 36 million pounds of ground turkey after 136 people in 34 states fell sick with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg, while a recent ground beef recall followed after 19 people in seven states contracted antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Typhimurium. It's a pricey problem: treating antibiotic-resistant infections costs us $20 billion a year in the United States, not to mention the loss of human life that can result.

A recent study of retail pork from 36 grocery stores in Iowa, Minnesota and New Jersey (the most comprehensive sampling of retail meat to date) found that almost 60% of the meat was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.[3] Transmission of these "superbugs" from farm-to-fork can occur in several ways. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can persist in an animal as it is raised and slaughtered and can even make it to the final packaged meat product. Employees at industrial farms and processing facilities can also contract antibiotic-resistant infections from animals, while contaminated clothing and the like can spread disease to other humans, animals or meat. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can also move through ventilation systems in farm buildings and even on trucks transporting farm animals, which can affect anyone nearby that breathes the air. In addition, manure containing antibiotic-resistant bacteria can end up in waterways after spills or applications as fertilizer on crop fields.

In 2010, officials at the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control testified before Congress affirming the link between on-farm antibiotic use and the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans. Several medical groups, like the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics have expressed alarm and many, including us here at Farm Aid, have asked for more prudent restrictions on antibiotic use. To date, the FDA has only recently restricted the sub-therapeutic use of just one class of antibiotics for farm animals, which is used far less commonly than other antibiotics.

Your health vs. cheap food?

There have been several attempts to pass federal legislation that would limit on-farm antibiotic use, as well as efforts to demand that the FDA restrict use to sick animals. But all efforts have met strong opposition from corporate livestock interests and pharmaceutical companies, who maintain that banning subtherapeutic antibiotic use would increase the cost of meat production and in turn the retail cost of meat to consumers. Many, it seems, debate the issue by pitting the availability of cheap meat against public health.

But we don't have to choose between cheap meat and our own health. There are other ways. One of the best examples for alternatives is Denmark's hog industry—the world's largest exporter of pork—which banned the subtherapuetic use of antibiotics in 1998.

In fact, the Danish hog industry has grown substantially in the past two decades, even though production dipped temporarily after the ban took effect in 1998. And interestingly, growth rates for hogs actually increased after the ban. Curious, since the application of antibiotics is said to be one of the best ways to promote growth in animals. Some surmise that the country's breeding program and shifts in farm management and animal husbandry influenced these improvements.[4]

Going antibiotic-free

So, while reducing antibiotic use on industrial farms may make it harder to crowd animals in tight, often unhealthy conditions, the country's livestock industries can adapt. At Farm Aid, we know this to be true from the many hardworking family farmers, like this month's Farmer Hero Stanley Hall, who have already blazed a trail to find new ways to raise their animals—ways that better steward our natural resources and support public health, rather than threaten it. We sourced pork for our HOMEGROWN Chili at this year's Super Bowl from Stanley, and we feature antibiotic free food from other farmers for the HOMEGROWN Concessions featured at our Farm Aid concerts.

More and more family farmers are finding a better way. To find their products, look for antibiotic-free labels at the grocery store or USDA-Certified Organic products, since antibiotic use is restricted from organic production. Our own Food Labeling page provides more information to help you navigate your choices. You can also search for farmers raising antibiotic-free livestock near you through online tools like the Eat Well Guide or Local Harvest. You can also head to the Whitehouse.gov petition page and join us in asking the Obama Administration to keep its promise to limit the abuse of antibiotics in livestock agriculture. And don't forget, Molly, to talk to your grocer about the food you want. When we share our demand for good food from family farms, we create new markets for the family farmers growing that good food. We've got to actively demand change from our food system!

Sources

1. U.S. FDA (2011). 2009 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals. Department of Health and Human Services. Washington, D.C.

2. Ibid.

3.O'Brien, A., Hanson, BM, Farina, SA, Wu, JY, Simmering, JE, et al. (2012). "MRSA in Conventional and Alternative Retail Pork Products." PLoS ONE 7(1). The study represents the largest sampling of retail meat products to date.

4.Meat Trade News Daily (2011) Denmark - Farm antibiotics being cut. June 20, 2011.

Further Reading

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