April 11, 2022


US cattle still raised with antibiotics despite antibiotic-free claim, says study



A new study published in Science found that a substantial portion of cattle in the United States destined for the antibiotics-free meat market have, in fact, been given antibiotics.


Lance B. Price, founder and co-director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at the George Washington University, Laura Rogers, deputy director of Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at the university, and Kevin Lo, chief executive officer of Food In-Depth, authored the study.


The team obtained urine samples from beef cattle being slaughtered for the "Raised without Antibiotics" marketplace. They tested nearly 700 cattle from 312 lots and 33 different "Raised without Antibiotics' certified feedyards. They found that 42% of feedyards had at least one animal test positive. Many with at least one positive test represented approximately 15% of the "Raised without Antibiotics" cattle processed during the study period.


The findings suggested that today's "Raised without Antibiotics" labels lack integrity. "People ask me all the time what they can do to prevent the overuse of antibiotics in meat production. For years, I've been telling them to buy products labeled "Raised without Antibiotics", said Price. "I'm disappointed to see that these promises aren't always true. The good news is that the majority of producers appear to be doing it right."


The research team found that there are strong incentives to cheat on a set of claims that are relatively easy to confirm.


While USDA approval gives these labels credibility and value in the marketplace, the agency does not mandate empirical testing to validate them. "The USDA, retailers and restaurants have the tools to ensure the integrity of these important labels. Consumers are paying real money for these claims, they should get what they pay for," Lo said.


"Raised without Antibiotics" production is a market-based solution to a serious public health issue, but the system only works if labels are verified.


The authors recommend that the United States Department of Agriculture and retailers strengthen verification and enforcement.


"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. My hope is that consumers and advocacy groups will pressure the USDA to reform these important label claims."


The study, "Policy reforms for antibiotic use claims in livestock", was published online on April 7.


- George Washington University

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