The Case for the Responsible Use of Antibiotics in Food-Producing Animals

August 14, 2012
  • Roger McElrath portrait

    Roger McElrath

    Associate Director, Human Rights, BSR

For years, antibiotics have been administered on meat-producing farms to treat sick animals or prevent infections when there is a known disease risk. The meat industry also uses antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes to grow animals faster or to compensate for the effects of overcrowding or unsanitary conditions. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the use of antibiotics in food-animal production accounts for approximately 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States. Recently, experts have concluded that there is a direct link between the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals and the growth of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. At the same time, a growing number of consumers are making buying decisions based on the health, environmental, and social attributes of food—including whether the animals that were used for their meat were administered antibiotics. In many respects, the U.S. meat industry has provided a safe and economical supply of meat protein to satisfy the increasing demand of consumers. But underlying that success has been an industrial-scale approach to raising food-producing animals that has created social and environmental challenges, including the need for and/or generation of large amounts of water, waste, and greenhouse gases. While these issues are well-known, less understood are the impacts of the industry's antibiotic usage.

The Costs of Antibiotics

Antibiotics are critical for treating diseases in both humans and animals, but overuse and misuse has fueled the development of new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, even as hospitals and physicians as well as some meat producers have taken steps to use antibiotics more responsibly. While health authorities acknowledge the role that improper human use of antibiotics plays in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, scientific research—and authorities including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FDA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—have noted a relationship between the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in food-animals and the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in humans. One study estimated that the treatment of resistant bacterial infections costs the United States between US$16 billion and US$26 billion annually. When used non-therapeutically, antibiotics in meat production are typically administered in low doses (in feed or water) over long periods of time and are not targeted at a particular disease. These practices are known to create an environment conducive to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can then spread to humans when that meat is eaten or when the contaminated meat or manure is handled by humans. Recognizing the potential risks involved in non-therapeutic applications of antibiotics, the European Union started banning the use of antibiotics for growth-promotion purposes in 2006. In the United States, the regulatory regime is much lighter. In April, the FDA issued new voluntary guidelines on the use of antibiotics that are medically important to humans on food-producing animals and on the marketing of antibiotics by the pharmaceutical industry to promote faster food-animal growth. The guidelines also call for enhanced oversight by qualified veterinarians in the dispensation of antibiotics. Nonetheless, ongoing monitoring will be essential to determine whether antibiotic use in food-animal production decreases over time.

The Business Case for Action

This misuse and overuse of antibiotics in food-animal production has significant implications for consumer-facing businesses in the food sector:

  • Risk mitigation: The quantity and severity of food contamination outbreaks in recent years has shined a light on how companies produce and handle food, and on the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food products. The public relations and financial fallout resulting from the spread of such bacteria to the general population could have a negative impact on companies up and down the meat value chain.
  • Interest group pressure: A wide variety of interest groups focus on the health and safety aspects of food, and their ability to pressure companies via social media and other communication tools is increasing rapidly. A noteworthy demonstration of this power was the "pink slime" case earlier this year in the United States, where the proliferation of parents' groups and "mommy bloggers" tend to have a strong focus on food quality and safety. Although antibiotics are not yet at the top of most companies' sustainability agenda, there is some evidence that this issue is bubbling up quickly within advocacy groups, and this has the potential to affect future policies and practices of companies.
  • Consumer demand: A growing number of consumers are making buying decisions based on the health, environmental, and social attributes of food. Increased public awareness of the negative impacts associated with non-therapeutic use of antibiotics could increase the market for meat products produced without the routine use of antibiotics. In an April 2011 survey sponsored by the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, roughly two thirds of interviewees said that regulations restricting the use of antibiotics in meat production would be worth it, even if the cost of meat and poultry increased by US$5 to US$10 per year for consumers.

Possible Company Actions

There are a range of actions companies can take to help preserve the efficacy of antibiotics and respond to consumer interest in responsible meat-growing practices:

  • Develop a clear understanding of how meat and poultry suppliers use antibiotics, including the type and amount of antibiotics administered, the reason the antibiotics were used, and the type and number of animals impacted.
  • Extend purchase preferences to suppliers that raise meat products without antibiotics or use antibiotics only for therapeutic purposes.
  • Highlight and expand meat, poultry, and pork offerings that are antibiotic-free or raised with the judicious use of antibiotics.
  • Create a supplier policy that sets expectations on the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals (BSR has an example of such a policy).

A number of prominent companies that sell directly to consumers have taken action on this issue:

  • Chipotle Mexican Grill, which serves nearly 1 million meals a day, sources 100 percent of its pork from producers that don't use antibiotics. The company is committed to doing the same with chicken and beef to the extent that supply is able to meet demand.
  • Compass Group, a large food-service company, has adopted a policy of sourcing meat exclusively from suppliers that use antibiotics for therapeutic purposes only.
  • Bon Appétit Management Company, which serves roughly 110 million meals a year, buys and sells chicken, turkey, and ground beef only if they have been raised without antibiotics.
  • A number of grocery retailers, such as Safeway, Harris Teeter, and Trader Joe's, carry private-label brands that feature meat produced without the use of antibiotics.
  • Whole Foods, the world's largest retailer of natural and organic products, including meat from food animals raised without antibiotics, is a growing market force and demonstrates that significant demand exists for responsibly produced food products.
  • Applegate Farms produces natural and organic meats raised without antibiotics that are widely available in grocery stores across the United States.

Future Directions

It is important for consumers and the food industry to understand and acknowledge that the use of antibiotics is a critical component of producers' efforts to ensure the health of food-producing animals. At the same time, however, there is significant overuse and misuse of antibiotics in some parts of the meat industry, and this is contributing to the rising occurrence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Arguing whether the inappropriate use of antibiotics in humans or animals is the main cause of the rise of antibiotic resistance misses the point, as action is needed in both areas. From a business perspective, failure to take action to ensure the responsible use of antibiotics, whether the company is a producer or a retailer of meat products, exposes the company to potentially significant risk, both to its reputation and to its supply of meat products. The meat industry is large and complex, so change will not occur overnight. But companies that take the steps outlined above will ensure that they are managing those risks and contributing to improving the long-term sustainability of the industry.

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