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Consumers—not science—are driving demand for antibiotic-free meat

Article-Consumers—not science—are driving demand for antibiotic-free meat

Feedlot cattle eating
Survey results paint an interesting picture of consumer perceptions.

For decades, farmers and ranchers have used antibiotics to prevent and treat infections in farm animals as well as for growth promotion. And animal health and welfare has benefited. Administered in the animal’s feed or drinking water at sub-therapeutic levels, animals raised in this manner experience lower mortality rates, are in general healthier and weigh more.

While the mechanism for this is not completely understood, it is believed that a constant low dosage of antibiotics allows for better nutrient absorption by the animals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has strict guidelines for the withdrawal times for antibiotics used in the rearing of food animals in order to assure the U.S. consumer that all meat purchased is free from antibiotic residue. Notwithstanding, the clamor from consumers for antibiotic-free meat continues.

In an effort to determine consumers’ preferences for meat and their general knowledge about livestock production practices, including the use of antibiotics, I undertook a market survey. What I found underscores the huge gap between livestock producers and consumers regarding antibiotic use in animal care and welfare.

We surveyed 76 consumers to gain a perspective about their preferences for meat and their knowledge about livestock rearing practices, including what they knew or had read or heard about antibiotic residues in meat and antibiotic resistant bacteria. The sample represented several ethnic backgrounds including White, Hispanic and African-American. Students, housewives and professionals were among the people surveyed.

Table 1

Ages ranged from 21 to 71-years old with a median age of 45.5, comprising a population of 26% millennials, 29% Gen-X, 38% baby boomers, 2% silent and 5% who didn’t report their age.

Sixty-seven percent reported they were married, 63% that they were solely responsible for the grocery shopping in their household and 80% said they purchased their meat at a grocery store as opposed to a butcher shop. Meat preferences included chicken, beef, pork, combinations of the three and several respondents wrote in veal, fish and seafood.

Table 1 shows a clear preference for chicken alone, (50%) which increased to 58% in combination with beef and to 70% with beef and pork. Only 17% of the respondents preferred beef alone. None chose pork as a sole preference.

Table 2 shows the results of questionnaire consisting of 22 questions concerning respondent’s perceptions of livestock production practices

TABLE 2 KEY Questions 1-17: 1 - I strongly agree, 2 - I agree, 3 - I have no opinion, 4 - I disagree and 5 - I strongly disagree Questions 18-22 were yes-no responses and are reported as percent answering yes.

I love meat and eat it regularly.


Livestock deserves to be raised in as disease-free an environment as possible.


I buy whatever meat is on sale.


When livestock becomes sick it should be treated with medicine.


The price of meat I buy for my family is important to me.


Antibiotics should be used to cure and prevent the spread of infection in a flock or herd.


I always look for sales on meat in the paper before shopping.


I would purchase ABF meat instead of the meat I currently purchase.


When I find meat on sale I buy extra and freeze it.


I would purchase ABF meat instead of the meat I currently purchase even if I had to pay more.


I don’t pay attention to meat prices.  Whatever I need at the time I purchase.


I would purchase ABF meat instead of the meat I currently purchase even if I had to pay twice as much.


When we eat out, we order meat dishes.


I have read/heard there are antibiotic residues in meat


I order organic or “grass fed” beef.


I have read/heard that the FDA long ago banned the sale of meat, milk or dairy products containing antibiotic residues.


I have heard livestock is routinely fed antibiotics in feed and drinking water and I’m OK with that.


I have read/heard there are super bugs that have become resistant to antibiotics due to their use in livestock.


I have heard that livestock is raised in tight quarters and I’m OK with that. 


I have read/heard that these super bugs can infect humans and pose a serious health risk.


Livestock deserves to be treated humanely.


I have read/heard that these super bugs are species specific and there is no evidence that they can jump to humans and pose a serious health risk.


The 17 questions graded 1 to 5 dealt with meat buying and dining preferences (questions 1-8) and what the respondents understood or had read or heard about livestock rearing practices (questions 9-17). The first eight questions revealed agreement among the respondents that they love to eat meat and eat it regularly, (2.3) and that the price they pay is important to them, (2.2). Notwithstanding, there was a bias towards disagreement that they purchased meat on sale, (3.6) and bought extra to freeze for a future meal, (3.3). There was agreement that when they eat out, they order meat, (2.5) but a bias towards disagreement about ordering grass-fed beef, (3.3).

Respondents showed their strongest disagreement toward livestock being routinely fed antibiotics (3.7) and that livestock are often raised in tight quarters (3.9). They were in strong agreement that livestock should be treated humanely (1.8) and in even stronger agreement that livestock should be raised in as disease-free environment as possible (1.3). When livestock become sick there was agreement that medicine should be administered (2.1), and specifically antibiotics when there is the risk of the spread of infection in a flock or a herd (2.3).

There was agreement that respondents would purchase antibiotic-free meat instead of the meat they were currently purchasing (2.2), even if they had to pay more for it (2.5), but not if they had to pay twice as much (3.3).

Responses to the five yes or no questions were especially revealing. Seventy-one percent said they had read or heard there are antibiotic residues in meat while only 20% said they had read or heard that the FDA had long ago banned the sale of meat, milk and dairy products containing antibiotic residues. Forty-six percent said they had read or heard about antibiotic-resistant superbugs as a result of current livestock rearing practices using antibiotics and almost the same amount (47%) said they had read or heard that these bugs can infect humans and pose a serious health risk. But only 13% said that they had read or heard that there is no evidence for this.

Our survey revealed that a large majority of consumers (71%) believe that their meat contains antibiotic residues and are willing to pay more for antibiotic-free meat despite the fact that all meat sold in the U.S. is already antibiotic-free by law, whether labeled natural, organic or antibiotic-free. Additionally, only 20% said they had heard that the FDA banned the sale of meat containing antibiotic residues. Fewer still (13%) said they knew there was no evidence to support the theory that antibiotic resistance in bacteria in livestock poses a threat to humans.    

Rick DeLuca, president of Merck Animal Health, recently spoke at the First European Animal Health Investment Forum held in London in February 2016 saying, “The lack of scientific data and pressure from consumers is being directly felt by farmers. Social media means small groups now have big voices and there is a lot of conjecture… There are consumer pressures on the antibiotics space and in animal welfare.” Joachim Hasenmaier, member of Boehringer Ingelheim’s corporate board for animal health, also spoke, saying, “There is a clear stand on antibiotics – consumers and politicians have decided. If we don’t convince consumers there are no residues in animal meat, meat consumption will decline.”

Consumers must be educated about the science behind the necessity for the judicious use of antimicrobials, including antibiotics in the rearing of livestock for human consumption. They also need to be made aware of the industry safeguards, which along with strict government oversight have been in place for decades, protecting them from antibiotic residues in the meat they currently purchase.

This is largely the responsibility of the meat producers. They should be leading the way in assuring the U.S. consumer that their meat is safe, healthy and antibiotic-free despite the use of antibiotics in livestock rearing. Instead of playing on the unfounded fears of ill-informed consumers, meat producers, through a variety of media, both traditional—a national marketing campaign perhaps—and social, should be at the forefront of this campaign, assuring consumers they have nothing to worry about.   

Greg Rummo is CEO of New Chemic, Inc., a company that imports various animal health products. Click here to download a .pdf copy of the paper and references.  

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