While driving one morning last week, radio humming, a commercial came on urging people to visit Stew Leonard’s Farm Fresh Foods to buy their antibiotic-free turkeys. Given the skeptic in me, I quickly called my go to for everything animal edible—Andrew Gunther, Program Director of Animal Welfare Approved (noted by Consumer Reports as the only “highly meaningful” food labeling program for farm animal welfare, outdoor access and sustainability)—to point me towards the real truth in the conundrum of claims.
While I hate to be a total buzz kill right before you plan to gobble down your bird this holiday season, I felt it was important to offer a reality check—hopefully in time for this Thanksgiving. If you haven’t heard, there is growing public concern about the link between the routine use of antibiotics in livestock production and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans. In other words, our drugs are no longer working to treat disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year more than two million people in the U.S are infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and at least 23,000 people die as a result. Experts now agree that the abuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming is a causal factor.
At first glance, it appears the meat industry is finally responding to public concern about antibiotic use in farming. Whether you shop at a superstore like BJs, a supermarket like Shoprite or your country market such as Stew Leonard’s, take a look in the meat department and you’ll notice the growing number of “antibiotic-free” turkeys from leading meat suppliers like Cargill, Purdue, and Tyson. In fact, Cargill—with brand names including Honeysuckle White, Shady Brook Farms, Willow Brook, Plantation, Marval, Riverside and Harvest Provisions—is just the latest producer to launch a line of antibiotic-free meat products this year. Just in time for this holiday of thanks, Cargill triumphantly announced it has removed growth-promoting antibiotics from its turkey flocks “because consumers want it and we believe it's the right thing to do for the turkeys in our care.” According to the Wall Street Journal, antibiotic-free products account for around 5% of meat sold in the U.S., but demand is growing quickly. So the rise in antibiotic-free products is a positive step forward, right?
Think again. As always, the devil is in the detail. While Cargill (and others) will claim they’re responding to consumer concerns, the real driver here is a recent deal between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the farm antibiotic industry to start voluntarily phasing out the use of antibiotics as animal growth promoters.
Let me clarify—the removal of growth-promoting antibiotics in animal production has nothing to do with the routine sub-therapeutic doses of drugs that our edible animals receive for disease prevention. Meaning that NOTHING is really being done to stop the continued abuse of antibiotics in industrial farming. Back to Cargill and their new “antibiotic-free” claim—will it make any difference? Sadly no. While they may have removed the drugs for growth promotion (yes, antibiotics are also used to make herculean animals) your animals are still being drugged daily to prevent disease. You see, industrial turkey farms are reliant on routine antibiotic use to prevent infections and other health problems caused or exacerbated by stress, overstocking, unsanitary conditions, and the inappropriate diet of the farming system itself. These confinement operations are, by their very design, dependent on routine antibiotics to keep the animals alive and growing.
Despite all the positive-sounding hype about Cargill and others phasing out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, these farming systems will stay as intensive and industrialized as ever, and the door will remain wide open for the continued abuse of antibiotics—just under a different guise. As Dr. Raymond Tarpley of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science at Texas A&M University recently pointed out, “if low-dose concentrations of antibiotics continue to be allowed for preventative use (even by prescription), they provide a ‘back door’ through which growth promotion effects can still be exploited under another name.”
So, don’t think for one second that buying “antibiotic-free” labeled meat from the likes of Cargill, Purdue, Tyson and others that dominate our food supply will somehow benefit the environment, animal welfare or the farmers’ livelihood. You’re almost certainly still supporting a corporate-dominated, intensive livestock farming system with a poor record for animal welfare, agricultural labor practices, and environmental pollution. And until the intensive meat industry is forced to introduce the kind of fundamental changes to their confinement operations that negate the need for any routine antibiotic use, the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria will remain as great as ever to human health. Not a good thing!
But enough with the problems—what is the solution? I wish the answer were easy. First off, best to understand that our government does not have an effective regulatory system in place to adequately monitor Cargill’s claims or that of any like producer. So food labeling is a bit of a free-for-all. Thus don’t believe the turkey tales (or that of any other animal food) unless verified by a third party such as Animal Welfare Approved (find products here). If you can’t find this label, look out for Certified Humane or USDA Organic.
As a side note, but an important one, neither Animal Welfare Approved nor Certified Humane believe that banning all antibiotics in farming is the solution. Fair rules that can ensure responsible use of antibiotics to treat sick animals, just as doctors treat humans, is quite reasonable and healthy for all. Routine use is not! After all, we wouldn’t toss antibiotics in our kids’ breakfast each day to prevent illnesses would we?