The backside of antibiotics in agriculture

Katie Couric’s report on antibiotics in agriculture will likely spur a new wave of consumers seeking natural meat and poultry. Unfortunately, the labels on many products—even in natural food stores—can be misleading.

“All natural” brands of chicken, for example, may tout the poultry “contains no antibiotic residues.” Wait a second…no residues? Every meat product in the marketplace can legally make that claim. The Food and Drug Administration requires that animals receiving antibiotics undergo a specified withdrawal period before going to slaughter so that the meat or poultry contains no antibiotic residues.

The unsuspecting customer purchasing the “all-natural” chicken breast containing “no antibiotic residues” is likely buying a conventionally-raised product.

If the FDA requires that all meat and poultry contain no residues, why do consumers continue to get sick from antibiotic resistant bugs? That’s where Couric missed part of the story.

A published study by the Environmental Defense Fund calculated that cattle, hogs and chickens in Iowa excrete 1.7 million pounds of antibiotics each year. That’s 852 tons of antibiotics deposited into municipal drinking water and soil used for raising crops. Combined excretions for the top ten conventional livestock states estimate 4,343 tons of antibiotics coming from the backsides of conventionally raised farm animals each year. As much as any of us are exposed to water and soil, we’re also exposed to these antibiotics.

Pending legislation in Congress would ban the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, but don’t look for swift passage. Despite the recent news coverage, major pharmaceutical companies and groups like the National Pork Producers Council are determined to derail legislation.

In the meantime, growing numbers of farmers and ranchers are kicking the drug habit altogether and raising animals without antibiotics. Those producers struggle to compete for shelf space against industrial operations marketing conventional products as “all natural” with “no antibiotic residues.” Natural retailers shouldn’t wait for congressional action. They can help the family farmer, and their shoppers, by insisting that labels in their meat cases live up to their customers’ expectations of antibiotic free meat and poultry.

Dave Carter is the executive director of the National Bison Association and principal of Crystal Springs Consulting Inc. He maintains a small herd of Buffalo in Colorado.

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