When “no antibiotics” claims may be misleading

This really bugs us: Conventional meat producers routinely feed their animals a steady diet of antibiotics to prevent illness and help them grow fatter faster. But in response to the growing numbers of consumers who hunger for meat and chicken raised naturally, without drugs, more are promoting their products as antibiotic free — even though they may be using other bacteria-killing compounds in the anti-microbial family. Their use does not have to be listed on labels, they work the same way as antibiotics, and are probably harmful to the environment. (San Francisco Chronicle)

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3 Responsesto “When “no antibiotics” claims may be misleading”

  1. Jenn says:

    Interesting...does anyone know what the actual "antimicrobial" compounds are that are being used?  Are they brand name drugs  that somehow slipped through the regulation cracks or other substances altogether? The chemist in me is curious...

  2. Elanor says:

    To my knowledge, the most common "non-antibiotic" antimicrobial fed to animals is a class of drugs called ionophores. She mentions them in the article. They're only approved for use in animals, not humans. Monensin, which our friend Wikipedia says is isolated from Streptomyces cinnamonensis, is a common ionophore used in cattle. (Annoyingly, the USDA defines ionophores as an antibiotic, but the FDA does not.)

    I was glad Finz covered this, but I thought she managed to make an already confusing situation even more so by oversimplifying the public health issues. The concern she leads with is around nontherapeutic antibiotic use, or the feeding of low doses of antibiotics to healthy animals. It's done because it makes animals grow faster and counteracts unhygenic CAFO conditions. It also contributes to antibiotic-resistant bacteria - and because a lot of CAFOs use human drugs like penicillin for nontherapeutic purposes, they end up generating penicillin-resistant bugs that can make humans untreatably sick.

    There's been a lot of publicity and concern about this practice recently, for good reason. Luckily, there's a federal bill to stop the practice of feeding human antibiotics to healthy animals  (called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, PAMTA). But notably, PAMTA would NOT ban the use of  drugs like ionophores that are only used on animals. That's because the public health case against ionophores is weaker - since they aren't used on people, there's less risk that ionophore-resistant bugs will be a megaproblem for human health. To me, the PAMTA approach makes a lot of sense: ban the most risky practice while you figure out the science on the other stuff.

    Finz didn't get into this, though. Instead, she set up a dichotomy where either you feed antibiotics to healthy animals or you're completely antibiotic-free (and even in the latter case, some companies are cheating the system). But that's way too oversimplified. Meat labeled "antibiotic-free" technically means it was produced without any antibiotics at all - no antibiotics given to healthy animals OR to treat the animals when they're sick. (Any animal that has to be treated can't be sold under the label). There are good reasons to support antibiotic-free production - reducing overall drug use is certainly important - but the real public health issue is not with the farmer who uses antibiotics responsibly to treat sick animals. That's a far cry from putting low doses of penicillin in your pig's feed every day.

    Here's what I'm trying to get at. Consumers are really worried about the fact that antibiotic use in livestock production is breeding resistant bacteria. There are legitimate scientific uncertainties around which drugs are the problem - ionophores may not be - but there's NO question that feeding human drugs to healthy animals is a really bad idea. What we need to do, rather than let Tyson et al. use confusing antibiotic-free labels to cash in on a legitimate public health concern, is to deal with the biggest problem through policy: ban the feeding of human antibiotics to healthy animals. (Ahem, PAMTA.) Then let scientists and consumers decide what "antibiotic-free" means and whether they want to buy it. (And if you find yourself on the totally-free end of the spectrum, the easiest solution is to buy organic meat, which can't be produced using antibiotics or other antimicrobials like ionophores.)

  3. Thanks for highlighting this issue.  I agree that the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics in livestock is a very serious health concern.  It is a confusing issue, however, and the article appears to have gotten a few things wrong.  As a law professor teaching Food Law & Policy and the Director of the LL.M. Program in Agricultural Law at the University of Arkansas,  I have done work on this issue, and a couple of additional points and resources may be helpful. 

    USDA (not FDA) approves the labeling of meat products.  FDA approves the use of antibiotics and anti-microbials in livestock, and it regulates animal feed, but it has nothing to do with meat labeling.
    A label does not need to say anything about what the animal was fed or not fed.  This issue only arises when a company makes a “production claim” such as “raised without antibiotics.”
    USDA initially took the position with respect to Tyson chicken labeling that ionophores were not antibiotics, but it reversed itself just a month or so later.  It then required Tyson to switch from saying “raised without antibiotics” to “raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans.”
    A competitor successfully sued Tyson for false advertising (not false labeling) under the Lanham Act. This means that the FTC is also involved in this issue, as they regulated false advertising.  In the course of this lawsuit, it was revealed that Tyson was using Gentamicin on the eggs two days before hatch. As this is clearly an antibiotic used for humans, the USDA demanded that Tyson stop using even the qualified label.

    There are two blog posts on the Agricultural Law blog that chronicle this story - 
    http://aglaw.blogspot.com/2008/06/twists-and-turns-of-tysons-raised.html and a follow up at http://aglaw.blogspot.com/2008/06/tyson-sues-usda.html

    I address production claims in general and this specific issue in a section of an article that I wrote last winter.  It is available for a free download at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1359832

    Thank you again for giving attention to this important issue.  This blog is fantastic!  Keep up the good work!

    Susan  Schneider