LISA LUPO

Antibiotic resistance is a hot topic today, so much so that there is an ongoing consumer call to end all use of antibiotics for food-producing animals, to provide meat that is “antibiotic free” and “produced without the use of antibiotics.” But is that what is really needed? And are companies who make such claims being completely transparent?

Antibiotic use in food-producing animals and the issue of resistance is discussed from two viewpoints in this issue of QA:

  • A U.S. perspective from former FDA Official Dr. David Acheson in Legislative Update: A New Look at Antibiotic Resistance.
  • A European perspective by Bayer’s Dr. Norbert Mencke in Special International Report: Healthy Animal Farming.

From both continents, there is mention of the drive, the demand, coming from the people.

To an extent, the demand is correct: Antibiotic use in animals is one of the factors that has led to antibiotic resistance in humans, and its non-therapeutic uses – such as that for growth promotion – should be cut. Additionally, the meat that arrives at a consumer’s table should not have antibiotic residue. But neither of these is the same as demanding that no antibiotics ever be used for the animals. And both are current industry standard:

  • Two FDA guidance documents (#209 and #213) focus on limiting the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs to those necessary for assuring animal health based on veterinarian oversight or consultation and manufacturers labeling the drugs as such.
  • To reduce the risk of antibiotic residues, FDA requires withdrawal of antibiotics from animals for a specified period prior to harvest.

What also should be of interest to consumers is the play with words that is used by the manufacturers and retailers who commit to selling “under our name” only meat from animals for which no antibiotics were ever used – to meet consumer demand. It is precisely the phrase “under our name” (or one similar) that is telling.

While XYZ-branded meat may be able to truly say no antibiotics were ever used in that meat, it does not necessarily mean XYZ company never used antibiotics for its animals. Rather the meat from the poultry, cattle, or swine for which therapeutic antibiotics were needed is simply sold off to another company or retailed under a different label that doesn’t hold the claim.

In fact, this was said outright by a Chipotle spokesman in a 2015 NPR article, which stated, “‘Under our protocol, if an animal is sick and needs to be treated with antibiotics, then it’s treated with antibiotics, but then it’s removed from our program,’ says Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s director of public relations.”

So while it is laudatory that many in the industry have committed to reducing the use of antibiotics for food-producing animals, it is a disservice to consumers to indicate that it is practical, possible — or even healthy — to never use antibiotics.

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.