Ignorance may be bliss but when you hear that 700,000 people die every year from antibiotic-resistant infections (at least 23,000 of which are in the United States), the glaring problem is a hard one to ignore. Reports even suggest this number can grow to 10,000,000 deaths per year by 2050 – if nothing changes.[1,2]
In January 2017, STAT News senior writer Helen Branswell reported “that about 70 percent of antibiotics are used in agriculture, often not to treat illnesses but to fend off diseases linked to the crowded, high-stress conditions of factory farming or to promote growth.” An FDA report even revealed that 62 percent of antibiotics that poultry and livestock received “were medically important for human health.”
No wonder antibiotic resistance is rising at an alarming rate! With so many fast food restaurants and supermarkets boasting Raised Without Antibiotics (RWA), No Antibiotics Ever, or No Antibiotics Added labels, public health advocates, physicians, and scientists are scrutinizing brands now more than ever.
Crying Fowl: 5 Major Grocers Exposed for Weak Stance on Antibiotic Use
As recently as May 2017, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) surveyed North America’s five largest chicken retailers – Albertsons/Safeway, Costco, Kroger, Publix, and Walmart. The NRDC’s survey was based on the following criteria:
- Responsible antibiotic practices
- Public commitments around antibiotic use
- Signage and informational materials directing consumers to products raised without routine antibiotics
- Whether suppliers’ claims regarding antibiotic use were verified externally (e.g., by independent third parties)
You would think that globally recognized grocery retailers would be leading the fight against frequent antibiotic use – especially since it’s posing a dire health risk to people around the world. Sadly, this is not the case. Just look at the D-grade scores they all received…
In an NRDC press release, a representative stated:
“The grades reflect the fact that none of the top five retailers have made a strong public commitment to addressing antibiotic overuse in the supply chains for chicken sold in their stores.”
This isn’t necessarily saying that these five major grocers have a mandate to keep routinely filling their food products with antibiotics. On the flip side, it seems that they’re doing very little to act in a timely manner. It’s kind of like someone who has been accused of a crime they didn’t commit, but they fail to deny it.
Survey Findings Worth Highlighting
- While they carried responsibly raised chicken products, all major grocers’ policies to phase our routine use of antibiotics by a specific date are either weak or nonexistent.
- With the exception of Publix, the remaining major grocery retailers had poor or nonexistent signage to point consumers toward responsibly raised, antibiotic-free chicken. If they carry such items (and they often do), why would you not make it clear for consumers?
- Across all brands of chicken carried by a retailer, few of their responsible antibiotic use claims were verified by third parties.
In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Costco representative and vice president of food and safety Craig Wilson explained that the retail giant is working towards and working alongside both suppliers and regulatory agencies in an effort to get rid of shared-use in antibiotics in animals. But, as stated by the NRDC report, that statement and others have yet to translate to an active, time-bound commitment.
Unfortunately, these findings seem to suggest that so-called true ambassadors of antibiotic-free meat are dishonest, insincere, and do not have consumers in their best interest. Carmen Cordova, a staff scientist with the NRDC, puts it plainly:
“The top five grocery store chains in the country feed millions of Americans, so their actions have a big impact on public health—for better or worse. The fast food industry and chicken producers are increasingly heeding customers’ demand for meat that’s raised better. Supermarkets can either continue to ignore the spread of drug-resistant infections, or they can answer their customers’ call to be a part of the solution.”
It’s hard to believe but fast food chains including Subway, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken are even making more of an effort to move towards selling responsibly raised, antibiotic-free meat!
Why Pushing for Livestock and Poultry Raised Without Antibiotics Is Necessary
Antibiotic Resistance: The ability of bacteria to resist the effects of an antibiotic. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in a way that reduces the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply, causing more harm.
Remember the numbers from the beginning of this article? Antibiotic resistant infection is not a future problem – it’s a present-day public health issue and is already taking lives.
Sometimes, animals require antibiotics; that’s a fact. However, problems arise when antibiotics that are meant for humans are also given routinely to the very animals we and you may consume.
3 Common Health Risks of Consuming Resistant Bacteria
A few things can happen when you consume animals that routinely received antibiotics.
- You can get Infections that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred
- Infections can increase in severity (often including vomiting and diarrhea)
- Infections become more difficult to keep up with and decrease the chance of a successful treatment
How You Can Lower Your Exposure to Antibiotics in Food
“In the absence of action at the federal level,” says Cordova, “consumers have been driving the move toward meat raised with responsible antibiotics use. The fast food industry has been leading the way – but people want to be able to eat better meat at home too. Our report shows that grocery stores have a lot of catching up to do.”
Next time you go grocery shopping, visit a local independent supermarket or a farm if one is near you. If you’re stuck with buying from one of the major grocery retailers we just exposed, keep these food label tips in handy!
Labels You Want to See
- Country of Origin (e.g., imports from countries part of the European Union)
- USDA Organic
- “Raised Without Antibiotics,” “No Antibiotics Administered,” and similar variations
Labels You Do Not Want to See
- No Antibiotic Residues
- No Antibiotic Growth Promotants
In short, you have the power to vote with your wallet. So do it!
 Branswell, H. (2017, January 03). FDA says food livestock can no longer be fed medically important antibiotics. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/fda-rule-livestock-medically-important-antibiotics-2017-1
 O’Neill, J. (2016, May). TACKLING DRUG-RESISTANT INFECTIONS GLOBALLY: FINAL REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS [PDF]. Review on Antimicrobial Resistance. https://amr-review.org/sites/default/files/160525_Final paper_with cover.pdf
 Layne, N. (2015, March 06). Exclusive: Costco working to end use of human antibiotics in chicken. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-costco-antibiotics-idUSKBN0M201520150306
 NRDC Press Release. (2017, May 16). Report: Five Largest U.S. Grocery Store Chains Receive “D”s for Antibiotics Policies. Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/media/2017/170516
 Antibiotic Prescribing and Use in Doctor’s Offices. (2017, December 07). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/about/antibiotic-resistance-faqs.html
 Antibiotics in Your Food: Should You be Concerned? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/antibiotics-in-your-food
 Antibiotic-Free Meat: A Buying Guide. (2018, February 22). Retrieved from https://thegrownetwork.com/antibiotic-free-meat/
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