Equilibrium & Sustainability

Beef advertised as ‘raised without antibiotics’ may have antibiotics: study

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Many Americans who choose to buy higher-priced beef products with reassuring labels like “Raised without Antibiotics” may actually be consuming steaks and burgers that do, in fact, contain antibiotics, a new study has found.

A substantial portion of cattle destined for this portion of the market have actually been given antibiotics — suggesting that such labels lack integrity, according to the study, published in Science Magazine on Thursday.

Researchers at George Washington University obtained urine samples from beef cattle that were being slaughtered for the “Raised without Antibiotics” marketplace, the study explained. After testing nearly 700 cattle from 312 lots and 33 different “Raised without Antibiotics” certified feedyards, they found that 42 percent of the yards had at least one animal test positive.

The lots where at least one animal tested positive represented about 15 percent of the “Raised without Antibiotics” cattle processed during the study period, according to the data.

“People ask me all the time what they can do to prevent the overuse of antibiotics in meat production,” co-author Lance Price, founder and co-director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University, said in a statement. 

“For years, I’ve been telling them to buy products labeled ‘Raised without Antibiotics’. I’m disappointed to see that these promises aren’t always true,” Price added. “The good news is that the majority of producers appear to be doing it right.”

The researchers determined that there are strong incentives for companies to cheat on a set of claims that are relatively easy to confirm.

They attributed this contradiction to the credibility and value such labels obtain in the marketplace after receiving approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture— while accusing the agency of failing to require empirical testing to validate the labels.

Some other such common labels include “No Antibiotics Ever” and “No Added Antibiotics,” according to the study.

“The USDA, retailers and restaurants have the tools to ensure the integrity of these important labels,” co-author Kevin Lo, CEO of Food In-Depth, said in a statement. “Consumers are paying real money for these claims, they should get what they pay for.”

Although the USDA does sometimes test for antibiotic residues in meat animals, the purpose of these tests do not serve to verify “Raised without Antibiotics” claims, according to the study. Among the 9 billion animals slaughtered in the U.S. for meat annually, the USDA tests fewer than 7,000 for antibiotics through its National Residue Program, the authors found.

While “Raised without Antibiotics” and similar such labels are market-driven solutions to a public health problem, the system can only work if the labels are being verified, the authors argued. They therefore recommended that the USDA and retailers bolster their verification and enforcement processes.

“Growing demand for ‘Raised without Antibiotics’ meats and poultry has the potential to curb antibiotic use in food-animal production,”  Price said.

“Until either the USDA acts to rigorously verify these claims or retailers eliminate their safe harbor of ignorance, consumers should not rely on the accuracy of these labels,” he added. “My hope is that consumers and advocacy groups will pressure the USDA to reform these important label claims.”

In response to the findings, a spokesperson for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said the agency would be reviewing the study more closely to determine next steps as appropriate, but that “there is no indication within the study that meat tested is unsafe to consume.”

“Certain labels bearing special claims about how an animal is raised must be approved by FSIS prior to their use in commerce,” the spokesperson said in a statement, noting that service verifies documentation provided with label applications. “Labels may be rescinded if there is evidence that the statement is not truthful.”

Products that bear the “Raised without Antibiotics” label may be included in testing conducted by the FSIS, which then records any antibiotic residue that exceeds maximum limits set by the Food and Drug Administration as a violation, according to the spokesperson. 

“All drug residue violations are shared with the FDA, which conducts its own investigations and enforcement for cases of drug misuse,” the spokesperson added.

Updated: 5:12 p.m.

Tags Antibiotics Beef Cattle

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