MADELEINE KLEVEN , PROJECT ASSISTANT, FOOD SAFETY PROGRAM AT FOOD ANIMAL CONCERNS TRUST
The spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, i.e. superbugs, threatens the health of both humans and animals globally. To combat the transmission of superbugs, significant reductions must be made in the amount of antibiotic used both in human medicine and agriculture. While antibiotics are essential in the treatment of serious bacterial infections in both humans and animals, their overuse exclusively benefits the superbugs. So what are the two biggest U.S. livestock sectors, chicken and beef, doing to reduce their antibiotic use?
In a recent report meatingplace claimed that twenty one of the top twenty two chicken companies in the United States have policies restricting antibiotic use. In an effort to validate this statement, we did some digging. Sure enough, it was true for at least part of their production. In fact, twenty of these companies have USDA certified restrictions on antibiotics through a system called the Process Verified Program (PVP). The USDA Process Verified Program is a verification service that uses clearly defined and implemented process points. These process points describe an agricultural process and must be 1: supported by a documented management system, and 2: independently verified by a qualified AMS auditor. If the proposed program passes both intensive on and off-site auditing procedures, then the product may be labeled with an USDA approved shield next to various certified process points.
For these top twenty two poultry companies we identified three different process verified points in which antibiotics are restricted. The first was No Antibiotics Ever (NAE), and fifteen of the top twenty two had this certification. Though NAE often only applied to certain retail brands of chicken within the company, each of these corporations provided at least one line of chicken products raised entirely without antibiotics. The second certification was chicken raised without medically important antibiotics (NMI), which refers to the World Health Organization’s list of antibiotics used in or related to antibiotics used in human medicine. Fifteen companies held this certification. Finally the third certification we examined was Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use (CRAU). This USDA standard allows for minimal use of medically important antibiotics prescribed by a licensed veterinarian. Four companies received this certification.
Though these certified labels do not cover ALL of the chickens raised by these companies it shows that substantial reductions in antibiotic use are possible on an industry wide scale. Sanderson farms is the only company in the top twenty two without PVP certifications for processes reducing antibiotic use, however, even Sanderson has committed to reduce the use of antibiotics important to human medicine beginning March 1, 2019.
According to a recent report in Poultry Health Today , 92% of US chickens are raised without medically important antibiotics (referencing FDA guidelines), leaving only 8% of US chickens raised with all FDA approved antibiotics. And in 2018, broilers (chickens bred for meat production) raised without any antibiotics ever, accounted for 51% of the total US production, an incredible 48% increase from 2014 when only 3% of broilers were raised without antibiotics. While this indicates great progress on the antibiotics front, we would like to see more information on the impacts of these reductions on animal health, and more information on steps that companies are taking to make sure animal health is not being negatively impacted by NAE programs. We would like to see more adoption of the CRAU and related programs which allow the treatment of sick birds when needed. Overall, however, this is tremendous news for chicken consumers and there seems to be momentum for continued action in the future. The beef industry on the other hand could use some assistance. While the chicken industry has spent several years now implementing antibiotic reduction policies, beef and pork retailers are barely getting started.
The top six beef producers in the United States based on sales are JBS, Tyson, Cargill, OSI Group LLC, American Foods Group and National Beef Packing. Of those, none have USDA PVP certifications for their beef products restricting antibiotic use and the majority of their sales are of conventional beef, where routine use of medically important antibiotics is allowed. JBS, Tyson, and National Beef Packing each have one or two retail brands that are marketed with reductions in antibiotic use, but considering the meat industry produces about 26 billion pounds of beef and these top companies make up 70% of the market, one retail brand each represents a very small portion of the total beef supply.
Of the top six meat processors, only Cargill and OSI Group LLC have begun implementing changes to reduce medically important antibiotics in their beef supplies. In 2016 Cargill reduced shared-class antibiotics – those that are medically important to human health and also used in beef production – by 20 percent at its four cattle feed yards, as well as at four alliance partner feed yards. Cargill also continues to explore alternatives to antibiotics in collaboration with allied partners. In 2017, OSI Group began phasing out highest priority critically important antibiotics as defined by WHO (e.g., Macrolides and Fluoroquinolones) across operations globally. In their latest sustainability report they also mentioned the efforts of their suppliers to reduce, and, where possible, eliminate subtherapeutic antibiotic use in food animals. The other three companies in the top five haven’t made as much of an effort.
JBS has a general commitment to reduce antibiotic use but allows the use of medically important antibiotics in disease prevention programs and addresses consumer concerns for less antibiotics by offering only one or two specific lines of products (e.g. organic or raised without antibiotics) raised with fewer antibiotics. Tyson currently has policies limiting medically important antibiotics in chicken, however the only current antibiotic restrictions that exist in beef are for their Open Prairie natural meats brand which is raised with no antibiotics ever. American Foods Group has very limited public mention of antibiotics and we were unable to identify any policies restricting the antibiotic use of their producers. Similar to Tyson and JBS, National Beef Packing offers a minimally processed, natural alternative to their conventional beef, a brand raised with no antibiotics ever. Though we are seeing a more judicious use of antibiotics in some facets of beef production, we would like beef companies to be more transparent about animal care and overall antimicrobial use in cattle.
Most beef cattle in the US are fed during the last phase of their lives on a diet of corn and soy. Cattle naturally prefer eating grass so this change in diet often results in the development of liver abscesses and other health problems. In response to this deterioration in health, most cattle in feedlots receive daily doses of antibiotics to prevent or limit these maladies. The drug most commonly used for this purpose is the antibiotic tylosin, which both the U.S. FDA and WHO consider to be critically important for human health. In addition to routine use in feed to address problems related to diets, cattle entering the feedlot are often injected with antibiotics to counter unhealthy practices that occur before they arrive such as shipping immediately after weaning, failure to vaccinate, and mixing together animals from multiple farms.
Antibiotics are an important asset in food production and animal safety when used for treatment of active disease and the control of outbreaks. However they should never be used to compensate for unsanitary living conditions or poor diets. Beef producers and beef buyers need to start taking concrete steps to reduce the reliance on routine antibiotics in the production of beef. This begins with addressing poor diets and poor procurement policies at feedlots.
Food retailers, including fast food restaurants, control a majority of the meat industry and exert large amounts of influence on meat production in the United States. While most major restaurant chains have taken steps to source chicken products raised without routine antibiotics, most have failed to address antibiotic overuse in their beef and pork supply chains. Considering 43% of the medically important antibiotics sold in the US are for use in cattle, compared to a mere 6% in chicken, the progress of chicken companies can’t make up for the beef industry’s inaction.
Fortunately, there are potential drivers for change, McDonald’s (the largest purchaser of beef in the US) being one of them. The company announced in December 2018 that they would reduce the overall use of antibiotics important to human health across 85% of their global beef supply chain. Because of its size, McDonald’s can leverage its buying power to drive industry wide progress. More companies need to join McDonald’s in pushing for change. Wendy’s, for example, has taken limited action but needs to do much more.
Walmart, the giant of the grocery chains, has also recently announced it intends to take more control of its beef supply chain. If Walmart were to follow McDonald’s in demanding reductions in antibiotic use by its beef suppliers, we could potentially see a sizable decrease in industry wide antibiotic use.
Antibiotic resistance is a growing global crisis. Everyone in food production and marketing, from producers to retailers, needs to do more to make sure that antibiotics are only used when they are absolutely needed. We cannot wait until untreatable infections are routine, by then it will be far too late.