Consumer demand for meat raised without antibiotics (RWA) has grown by 25 percent over three years, and shows every sign of continuing to accelerate, driven by consumer concerns about human health, animal welfare, and environmental stewardship. Despite an overall decrease in U.S. per capita meat consumption, sales of meat and poultry raised without antibiotics have steadily increased over the same three-year period.
According to surveys conducted by Consumer Reports, 72 percent of consumers are very concerned or extremely concerned about the widespread use of antibiotics in food products, listing the fear of rising antibiotic resistance and the proliferation of multi-drug resistant superbugs as a top reason. Heavy selective pressures imposed on bacterial populations by antibiotic overuse have been shown to favor the spread of drug-resistant bacterial strains, which thrive in such conditions. These selective pressures are widespread, with approximately 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. being administered to animals raised for food, including hogs, cattle, chickens, and turkeys. This large-scale antibiotic use kills susceptible bacteria, leaving behind only drug-resistant bacteria, which reproduce and give rise to a growing population of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. These superbugs then spread through air, soil, water, and contaminated meat, resulting in untreatable infections in human patients. Multi-drug resistant E. coli infections seen in humans have been linked directly to contaminated poultry, and hospitals have seen an increase in untreatable, fatal, bacterial infections as widespread agricultural antibiotic use favors the population growth of bacterial strains resistant to even last-line antibiotics. Resistant bacteria transfer the resistance trait across species by plasmids, small bits of DNA that can be transferred to different types of bacteria. For example, the mcr-1 gene, which confers resistance to the last-line antibiotic colistin, has been found in E. coli, Klebsiella, and Pseudomonas species, all common sources of infection.
In addition to public health concerns, customers in search of meat viewed as humanely raised seek meat from animals raised without antibiotics, often viewing prophylactic antibiotic use as a necessity that arises from crowded factory farm conditions.
Consumers in search of meat raised without antibiotics depend on labels such as the USDA No Antibiotics Added label to ensure the quality of their meat. The USDA No Antibiotics Added label verifies that an animal was not given antibiotics, in any form, at any time during its lifespan. To apply for such labeling, producers submit documentation to the USDA, providing a brief description of the raising of the animals from birth to harvest. Documentation of raising practices should include segregation protocols and procedures for dealing with sick animals, complete feed formulation presented in common language or copies of feed tags, and a signed affidavit on company letterhead verifying all claims on the label are true. Information regarding antibiotic usage is self-reported by the producers, placing the responsibility on farm facilities to ensure animals are raised without antibiotics.
Additionally, for poultry, the USDA verifies that poultry products were not derived from eggs or poultry that were injected or otherwise treated with antibiotics. The USDA also monitors methods of verifying these claims. If the animals were purchased from another producer, the USDA requires a copy of the incoming purchase label bearing the claim that the animals were raised without antibiotics, or a copy of the letter from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service to the original producer, accepting their supporting documentation for the raised without antibiotics claim, as well as the in-house segregation protocol from the time the meat is received until shipping of the final product. The USDA also accepts copies of certificates from third-party certification agencies.
Efforts in Reducing Antibiotics
Together with the USDA, the CDC and the FDA have testified before Congress that there is a definitive link between routine nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production and the rising tide of antibiotic resistance in humans. The FDA, which regulates veterinary use of antibiotics, has issued best practice guidelines that include the voluntary withdrawal of production use of new medically important veterinary antibiotics. The FDA recommends that antibiotics be used in food-producing animals only under veterinary determination of medical necessity and utility, and that drug sponsors voluntarily revise the conditions of use of their medically important new antimicrobial animal drugs to reflect the need for the professional oversight of a licensed veterinarian. This would mean a change from over-the-counter to veterinary feed directive status for medicated feed products and from over-the-counter to prescription status for medicated drinking water products.