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Published July 02, 2012, 09:57 AM

Concerned about antibiotics in meat

A majority of Americans want antibiotic-free meat, according to a national poll released by Consumer Reports. The report, “Meat on Drugs: The Overuse of Antibiotics in Food Animals and What Supermarkets and Consumers Can Do to Stop It,” is available at ConsumerReports.org.

By: Greg Henderson, Drovers CattleNetwork

LENEXA, Kan. — A majority of Americans want antibiotic-free meat, according to a national poll released by Consumer Reports. The report, “Meat on Drugs: The Overuse of Antibiotics in Food Animals and What Supermarkets and Consumers Can Do to Stop It,” is available at ConsumerReports.org.

The release of the poll coincides with the launch of a new marketplace campaign by Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, urging supermarkets to sell only meat raised without antibiotics. The campaign begins at Trader Joe’s, a supermarket Consumers Union calls “one of the leading national chains best poised to make this commitment.” Consumers Union also sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking the agency to tighten labeling standards for meat raised without antibiotics.

“We are asking supermarkets to step up to the challenge and tell their suppliers to procure only meat and poultry that has been raised without antibiotics,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union. “Antibiotics are losing their potency in people, leading to a major national health crisis, and we need to drastically reduce their use in food animals. We are calling on Trader Joe’s to be a leader and make this change now.”

Industry responds

The release of the poll by Consumer Reports is sure to draw criticism from many producers and livestock groups. In June, a coalition of agricultural organizations sent a letter to New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter — who is seeking to severely restrict antibiotic use in livestock — asking her to recognize the stringent federal approval process and regulation of antibiotics, the lack of human health risks from their judicious use in livestock production and the benefits they offer in food animal production.

Members of the coalition include the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Feed Industry Association, American Meat Institute, Animal Health Institute, American Veterinary Medical Association, National Cattleman’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council, National Meat Association and the National Turkey Federation.

According to the Consumer Reports poll, 86 percent of consumers polled said that meat raised without antibiotics should be available in their local market. More than 60 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay at least 5 cents a pound more for meat raised without antibiotics and 37 percent said they would pay $1 or more per pound for such meat products.

The majority of respondents to Consumer Reports’ poll (72 percent) were extremely or very concerned about the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed, including the potential to create “superbugs” that are immune or resistant to antibiotics. More than 60 percent were just as concerned with the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed allowing them to be raised in unsanitary and crowded conditions for livestock, human consumption of antibiotic residue and environmental effects of agricultural runoff containing antibiotics.

The campaign launched by Consumers Union, “Meat Without Drugs,” includes a companion website, www.MeatWithoutDrugs.org, and features a new video in partnership with www.FixFood.org, a social media project of Food Inc. director Robert Kenner, narrated by actor Bill Paxton, explaining the declining effectiveness of antibiotics. According to a Consumer Reports release, “Some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used not on people, but on factory farm animals, to make them grow faster and to prevent disease in crowded and unsanitary conditions. This is creating ‘superbugs’ on farms to which humans are being exposed and causing life-saving drugs to become less effective.”

Such claims are sure to draw the ire of many livestock industry leaders who believe activists have unnecessarily alarmed consumers about antibiotic use in livestock production, and are likely to view the new Consumers Union campaign as an attempt to erode consumer confidence in the safety and wholesomeness of livestock and dairy products.

Safety measures

In its letter to Slaughter, the coalition said: “Antibiotics used in veterinary medicine are reviewed and approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.” For animal antibiotics, the safety assessment is more stringent than that for human antibiotics in three ways:

n If there are risks to humans, FDA will not approve the antibiotic for animals.

n FDA requires a food safety assessment to ensure meat is safe.

n FDA studies the pharmaceutical thoroughly to guarantee it does not increase the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food.

The coalition further explained that FDA recently issued new regulations that effectively prohibit the use in food animals of “medically important” antibiotics for improving nutritional efficiency. The rules also ensure veterinarians will be involved in overseeing all uses of these products.

The coalition also cited several published, peer-reviewed risk assessments showing any threat to human health from antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production is negligible, and pointed out many of the bacterial illnesses becoming resistant to antibiotics in human medicine have little or no link to antibiotic use in food animals.

Editor’s Note: Henderson is the editor and associate publisher of Drovers CattleNetwork. Reprinted with permission from Drovers/CattleNetwork.