A consortium of consumer, animal, and food policy groups has released the latest edition of their Chain Reaction report analyzing antibiotic use on the livestock farms producing meat for the country’s largest restaurant chains.
This year’s edition report focuses on the iconic American hamburger, surveying antibiotic policies at popular national burger chains and grading each on how well it is working to keep medically-important antibiotics out of the food chain.
The groups – Consumers Union/Consumer Reports, Center for Food Safety, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), and U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) – salute the fast-food industry for progress in reducing the use of chicken meat from farms that use antibiotics.
But, the story is different for the beef that accounts for over 40% of animal antibiotic use, all but 3 restaurant chains received failing grades for serving burgers from animals treated with antibiotics.
But, consumers appear to be interested in antibiotic-free meat. In a survey conducted this year by Consumer Reports, “almost 60 percent of respondents would be willing to pay more at a restaurant for a burger made from meat raised without antibiotics.” Plus, the Nielsen Company reports that “sales of meat products labeled ‘antibiotic free’ grew 28.7 percent from 2011-2015, compared to 4.6 percent sales growth of conventionally-raised meat during the same period” (Consumer Reports et al., 2018).
The medical community also agrees that antibiotic use in meat animals needs to be curtailed. Recall that most antibiotics “are given to animals that are not sick to accelerate weight gain and prevent disease in crowded, stressful, and unsanitary industrial farming conditions.”
Medications are mixed in with food and water and given to the whole herd, resulting in widespread, low-dose exposure that sets the stage for the development of antibiotic resistance.
Concerns over growing resistance to antibiotics among common food-borne pathogens with roots on the farm led the American Academy of Pediatrics to release a statement in 2015 that antibiotic use is warranted “only to treat and control infectious diseases in livestock and not to promote growth or to prevent disease routinely” (Consumer Reports et al., 2018).
But, there are some clear ways producers can reduce antibiotic use, as described in the report:
- Keep cattle on pasture as long as possible (or go 100% grassfed), reducing the health risks brought by the grain-based diet and overcrowded conditions in feedlots;
- Vaccinate cattle and use non-antibiotic veterinary treatments to control and prevent disease;
- Do not mix groups of cattle as they travel to the feedlot, a practice that spreads infectious pathogens, including resistant ones.
Consumers want better choices and healthier foods, even at fast food restaurants. With yet another report of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella just filed yesterday (October 17, 2018), it’s clear more work is needed in limiting antibiotic use in our food chain.
Consumer Reports, Center for Food Safety, FACT, U.S. PIRG, Friends of the Earth, and NRDC, “Chain Reaction IV: Burger Edition,” October 2018.
Jesse Hirsch, “Most Burger Chains Get Failing Grades for Antibiotics Use,” Consumer Reports, published online October 17, 2018.