How feasible is antibiotic–free meat?

Consumers and food companies are jumping on the antibiotic-free bandwagon.

February 29, 2016

9 Min Read
How feasible is antibiotic–free meat?

In an effort to meet perceived consumer desires, food producers are increasingly using label claims that tout non-GMO, natural, organic, hormone free and pesticide free products to convey a higher degree of healthiness. The latest additions consumers must consider are antibiotic-free and raised without antibiotics, spurred by reports of antibiotic resistant super bugs and antibiotic residues in meats.

Seizing on this as an opportunity, companies such as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms Inc.; retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc.; and fast food chains such as Chick-fil-A have jumped on the antibiotic-free bandwagon.

But questions remain, including the feasibility and sustainability of raising livestock in an antibiotic-free environment in sufficient in number to feed an ever-growing population of meat eaters, what this means in added cost to consumers and if antibiotic-free really means antibiotic-free.

The challenge: Raising healthy food-producing animals

The Wall Street Journal recently described the monumental task facing meat producers in light of an ever-increasing demand for meat.

“At current consumption rates, the world would need to generate 455 million metric tons of meat annually by 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion, from 7.3 billion today. Given today’s agricultural productivity, growing the crops to feed all of that poultry, beef and other livestock would require every acre of the planet’s cropland, according to research firm FarmEcon LLC—leaving no room for raising the grains, fruits and vegetables that humans also need.”

Along with this anticipated strain on the world’s grain producers, of necessity, food animals which have had to be raised in close proximity to one another are going to have to continue being raised in close proximity to one another if this demand is ever to be met. And in such confined quarters, disease is a real problem that, if not contained, can wipe out a huge number of animals very quickly.

Since the 1950s, antibiotics have been used routinely in the feed and drinking water of livestock raised for human consumption. This practice has resulted in animals being in better health overall as well as weighing more at the time of slaughter, an obvious financial benefit to the livestock farmer. The mechanism of this weight gain is not completely understood but, in addition to creating generally healthier animals, it is believed that continuously administering low-level dosages of antibiotics results in better nutrient absorption.

Due to increasing concerns over antibiotic resistant super bugs in humans, there has been a growing clamor from consumer groups to eliminate the use of antibiotics in rearing livestock for human consumption—despite there being little evidence that antibiotic use in rearing food animals is the cause of antibiotic resistant bacteria. That clamor also highlights the possibility of antibiotic residues in meat—despite the fact that since the 1950s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned antibiotic residues in meat.

In a 2011 industry white paper published by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture titled Antibiotic Use in Food Animals, the authors state:

“If antibiotics are administered to cure a sick animal, the animal itself —in the case of meat production , or animal products —such as milk —are not allowed to enter the food supply until the withdrawal period has passed and the medicine has sufficiently cleared the animal’s system. The required periods for withdrawing medication are specific for each drug and species and are approved by the FDA based on research studies of residues in edible tissues.”

FDA Guidance #209 and #213

These growing concerns came to a head when, in December 2013, the FDA published voluntary guidelines calling on the industry to observe more prudent use of antibiotics and to work toward their complete withdrawal at the growth promotion level. FDA Guidance for Industry directives 209 and 213 “establish the procedures for voluntarily phasing out growth promotion indications for medically important antibiotics.”

Guidance 209, published in 2012, specifically states two voluntary principles:

“The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health and the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should include veterinary oversight or consultation.”

Guidance 213 was more specific to the elimination of antibiotics used in animal feeds. It provides the procedures for voluntarily phasing out growth promotion indications and establishing therapeutic treatment indications for the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals.

All pharmaceutical companies have gotten on board and are changing their label claims to be in accordance with the FDA directives.

Current practice down on the farm

There are different dosage levels of antibiotics used in rearing livestock depending on the circumstance: growth promotion, disease prevention and disease treatment. It is FDA’s plan to phase out growth promotion use while preserving therapeutic use under the oversight of veterinarians. This is critical for the overall health of the animals, which are often raised in close quarters in order to meet, in a cost-efficient manner, the demands of American’s ever-increasing appetite for meat.

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According to the Animal Health Institute, even if every manufacturer were to end the production of antibiotic-containing feeds for growth promotion, antibiotic use could continue for disease prevention and treatment under the guidance of a veterinarian. And since the use of antibiotics is driven by many factors like weather and disease outbreaks, it is unlikely that overall [antibiotic] use would be greatly affected.

When is an antibiotic not an antibiotic?

Adding to the disconnect between consumer perception of antibiotic-free and actual antibiotic practice on the farm is the characterization of antibiotics themselves. The FDA lists 18 different categories of antimicrobials. Among them is a class of antimicrobials called ionophores; including laidlomycin, lasalocid, monensin, narasin and salinomycin.

Although not strictly characterized as antibiotics, ionophores are nonetheless antimicrobials, i.e., drug substances whose function is to kill microorganisms, bacteria and protozoans. Among the 18 classes of antimicrobials, ionophores are the second largest class approved for use in food-producing animals by total kilograms. The latest statistics available from FDA show that in 2014, 4,718,650 kg were actively marketed, surpassed by tetracyclines at 6,600,849 kg.

However, ionophores aren’t used in human medicine and therefore, fall outside of the FDA’s efforts. Nonetheless, these widely-used products in beef production and other food-producing species are counted in the total antibiotic use by livestock producers.

The cost to the consumer

Writing in The Journal of Applied Poultry Research, poultry veterinarian Hector Cervantes explains:

“There is little convincing scientific evidence that the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals is contributing to the antibiotic resistance issues that are relevant to human medicine. However, public perception in first world countries suggests that consumers believe this to be true. According to the U.S. Organic Trade Association, sales of antibiotic-free (ABF) organic foods have grown at a rate of 20% per year since 1990. This is in spite of wider recognition that antibiotic resistance in humans is caused by antibiotic use in humans and not in food producing animals.”

Notwithstanding, this message seems to be falling on deaf ears. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that the sale of antibiotic-free beef, while only 5% of the total beef market, has been growing at a pace exceeding the overall market. From 2011 – 2014, when retail beef sales were up 12.1%, natural beef grew at a 38.9% rate and organic beef at an astounding 324.1% rate. This despite a 30-80% increase in the costs of raising natural, grass-fed and organic beef (raised without the use of antibiotics) that is ultimately passed along to consumers.

In the same vein, five months earlier, The Wall Street Journal reported that poultry producer Pilgrim’s Pride Corp, the second largest U.S. poultry producer announced plans to eliminate all antibiotics from a quarter of its chicken production by 2019.

Raising healthy livestock, given the ever-increasing demand for high-quality, value-priced meat without the use of antimicrobials during an animal’s life, is a challenge. Farmers, faced with the juxtaposed demands of quality and affordability, will have to continue to practice judicious use of antimicrobials to treat or prevent diseases in order to maintain a healthy population of animals while following the FDA’s recommended withdrawal times to prevent antibiotic residues.

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And their use of antibiotics to raise healthy animals will continue to come under scrutiny, despite the lack of evidence that bacterial resistance to antibiotics in farm animals jeopardizes human health through the creation of super bugs. Consumer pressure seems to be winning out.

Greg Rummo is CEO of New Chemic, Inc., a company that imports various animal health products. This article is an adaptation of a paper he wrote as part of his Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) studies.

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Apley, Mike and Griffith, Gary, Nov. 4, 2011, Chlortetracycline, Oxytetracycline, Tetracycline and Bacitracin Tissue Residue Studies in Swine Conducted in Reference to Foreign Export Markets, NPB #09-257, The National Pork Board

Bunge, Jacob, April 15, 2015, Pilgrim’s Expects 25% of Its Chicken Will Be Antibiotic-Free by 2019, The Wall Street Journal

Bunge, Jacob, December 2015, How to Satisfy the World’s Surging Appetite for Meat, The Wall Street Journal

Cervantes, Hector, Antibiotic-free poultry production: Is it sustainable? The Journal of Applied Poultry Research 2015 J. Appl. Poult. Res. 24:91–97

Cervantes, Hector, Oct. 23, 2008, Coccidiosis Control, The Poultry Site;

Effects of FDA’s Proposed New Regulations Regarding Judicious Use of Antibiotics in Medicated Feed and Drinking Water of Food Animals, February 2014, Q&A Paper published jointly by Bimeda, Inc., and the Animal Health Institute

Industry Experts, Veterinarians, and Sanderson Farms Weigh-In on Antibiotics in Poultry Production, Feb. 9, 2016, PR Newswire

Information synthesized from an Oct. 26-27, 2011, symposium in Chicago, IL: “Antibiotic Use in Food Animals: A Dialogue for a Common Purpose,” National Institute for Animal Agriculture 

Kesmodal, David, Sept. 15, 2015, Beef’s Meaty Profits Slow Effort to Boost Antibiotic-Free Production, The Wall Street Journal

Kesmodel, David,  Bunge, Jacob and McKay, Betsy, Nov. 3, 2014, Meat Companies Go Antibiotics- Free As More Consumers Demand It, The Wall Street Journal

Natural Resource Defense Council, 2015, Case Study, CS:13-03-C, Going Mainstream: Meat and Poultry Raised Without Routine Antibiotics Use

White, Elinore, Price, Bill, Nov. 7, 2013, Media Statement on U.S. FDA Guidance #209, #213 and the Draft Veterinary Feed Directive, Zoetis Animal Health

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