‘Antibiotic-free’ labels on beef aren’t always accurate


If you spend more money on beef raised without antibiotics, you may not be getting what you pay for. A new analysis found that 15% of cattle raised and slaughtered for the “Raised Without Antibiotics” market tested positive for at least one antibiotic.

“Raised without antibiotics” [RWA] and related claims are absolute, meaning the antibiotics should never have been given to animals destined for the RWA market,” states Laura Rogersdeputy director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and co-author of the study, published April 7 in Science. “This is disappointing to say the least. This is a strong label claim, and consumers should have confidence in it,” she says.

Overuse of antibiotics is a threat to global health

The routine use of antibiotics in healthy animals is a health concern; overuse and misuse of antibiotics in animals contribute to antibiotic resistance, whether World Health Organization (WHO) considered one of the biggest threats to global health and food security.

More than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the United States each year, resulting in more than 35,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

the CDC supports “the judicious use of antibiotics in humans and animals, including the important work the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are doing to improve the use antibiotics in veterinary medicine and agriculture”.

Part of this effort is to require documentation from food producers so agencies can approve labels such as “No Antibiotics Ever (NAE)” or “Raised Without Antibiotics”, both of which mean that the source animal n never received antibiotics, according to the agency.

Findings Suggest RWA Labels Lack Integrity

To test the accuracy of the labels, the researchers obtained urine samples from 699 beef cattle from 312 lots and 33 feedlots certified as Raised Without Antibiotics destined for the Raised Without Antibiotics market.

Investigators found that 42% of feedlots had at least one positive animal test, and batches with at least one positive test accounted for about 15% of cattle raised without processed antibiotics during the study period.

While several of the feedlots met the standard all or most of the time, at three of the feedlots all cattle tested positive for antibiotics.

The results suggest that the Raised Without Antibiotics label lacks integrity, according to the authors.

“People ask me all the time what they can do to prevent the excessive use of antibiotics in meat production. For years I told them to buy products labeled raised without antibiotics,” said a co-author, Lance B. Price, Ph.D.professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington Public Health, in a Press release. “I am disappointed to see that these promises are not always true.”

“The good news is that while we found 15% of the cattle positive, we also found that 85% were not,” says Rogers. “That means the majority of producers are following the rules, but we need to get that figure up from 85% to 100%,” she says.

Label reform needed to ensure claims are true

According to the authors, meat producers have strong incentives to circumvent regulations that would be relatively easy for the USDA to enforce. “The USDA should establish a rigorous verification system to ensure that RWA claims are true and accurate, or they should stop approving these labels,” they wrote.

They offer the following suggestions on how the USDA could ensure that meat is labeled accurately.

  • The USDA should conduct or require ongoing empirical on-site testing for antibiotics on a significant number of animals from each batch delivered for processing.
  • The agency should use sensitive, real-time technologies that identify animals that have been treated with antibiotics rather than relying on the less accurate maximum residue limits of antibiotics that are obtained after the animal is slaughtered.
  • Lots that test positive for antibiotics should be redirected and sold on the conventional market.
  • Positive lots should be tracked and posted on a public registry, and repeat offenders should be excluded from providing animals for RWA programs until they can demonstrate that they have taken meaningful steps to eliminate the undisclosed use of antibiotics.

“We hope consumers will use their powerful voices and call for label reform,” Rogers said.

Tips for Buying Meat Raised Without Antibiotics

Besides RWA, other labels guarantee that the meat you buy has been raised with antibiotics. consumer reports offers the following tips.

Choose products bearing the “Certified Organic” label. Meat with this seal must be raised without antibiotics, and farms and processing facilities are inspected at least once a year.

Buy products with a “Process Verified” label. Although this label is currently much more widespread on poultry than on beef, food producers who apply for this certification accept both administrative audits and on-site inspections.


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