After the barbecue: food for thought


So, the fireworks are over and the grills cleaned up. But one unsavory part of the meat we grilled for Independence Day can linger, causing us trouble down the road. Most of us are not aware of what goes into producing the meat that made its way onto our barbeque plates, but if you purchased and consumed conventionally raised meat this July 4th, it’s likely that it was raised using massive quantities of antibiotics.


This routine use of low-doses of antibiotics over the life of most farm animals is a major contributor to the development of “superbugs”, with ripple effects not only for your health and the health of your family, but for our overall ability to preserve the effectiveness of these life-saving drugs.

We need better regulation to eliminate unnecessary uses of antibiotics in the livestock industry and more information to be able to make better choices as consumers when buying our meat. Fortunately, we have opportunities to do both (more on this below). We can urge the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to put in place real controls on antibiotics in animal feedlots in the upcoming week. And we can use the results of a new survey and Consumer Reports study to make better choices in the meat we buy.

The problem

As I’ve written before, 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on livestock, the vast majority in low doses at a herd-wide or flock-wide level to promote more rapid growth and to compensate for unsanitary and crowded conditions. Approximately 29 million pounds (!) of antibiotics were used in livestock in 2010; compare that to about 7 million pounds used in humans.

Most of this misuse could be avoided with better management of animal feedlots (we are not talking conversion to pasture here), such as better and more frequent cleaning of barns, more space for animals, better ventilation, and better feeding. Yet, this overuse persists because livestock facilities have not been willing to make these modest changes and pharmaceutical companies make more money if livestock facilities buy vast quantities of the drugs.

This overuse of antibiotics in livestock is a leading contributor to the rising public health threat of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance threatens the effectiveness of essential medicines we rely on to treat common, but potentially serious infections like pneumonia. When antibiotics don’t work as well as they used to, illnesses can last longer, can lead to more hospitalizations, can require the use of stronger antibiotics with greater side effects, and can even result in death when a bacteria that is causing the infection is resistant to all antibiotics that can be used to kill it.

Tell FDA (by July 10) that we need better regulations

FDA has the responsibility and authority to protect public health by stopping the unnecessary use of antibiotics in animal feed. FDA has known about the risks of this practice for human health since the 1970s, but has failed to take meaningful action to stop the practice. That's why NRDC and our partners brought a lawsuit last year to force FDA to act, which I’m proud to say was successful. In March and June, a federal court directed FDA to move forward with the process for stopping the misuse of antibiotics in livestock, a process that has been pending for as long as 35 years in some cases.

But FDA continues to drag its feet by focusing its resources on a voluntary strategy—voluntary for industry, which can choose to follow FDA’s recommendations or not. The voluntary approach also has a huge loophole that would allow many of the same low-dose uses of antibiotics to continue under the guise of “disease prevention”—code for dirty, crowded facilities. Having better managed facilities would eliminate most of this “need.” You can tell the FDA to follow the court orders, to impose meaningful limits on the use of antibiotics in livestock, and to fix its flawed recommendations by clicking below and sending a letter to FDA by July 10.


New information to help us buy better meat

While we wait for FDA to act, there is something else we can do: buy meat raised without antibiotics whenever we can. And we have some help on that front. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter’s office recently released information collected from fast food companies, meat producers, meat processors, and grocery store chains about their policies on antibiotic use in meat and poultry production.  The survey found that while an overwhelming majority of food production companies routinely feed low-doses of antibiotics to healthy food-animals, a small number of industry leaders provide antibiotic-free meat and poultry products. We can and must support these industry leaders.

We can also look for meat raised without antibiotics in our grocery stores. A recent Consumer Reports study revealed that meat raised without antibiotics is increasingly available in our grocery stores and that it need not cost more than conventionally raised meat. Consumer Reports found that 119 of the 136 stores visited offered at least one meat product that said it was raised without antibiotics. For both chicken and pork, the price of meat raised without antibiotics was equal to or less expensive than the average price of conventionally raised meat in at least some stores.

This is encouraging. But we need more choices. Consumers Union and Fix Food have a campaign to encourage Trader Joe’s, as an industry leader, to carry only meat raised without antibiotics. The web-site also includes information on labels you can look for to help you make better choices. NRDC is a proud supporter of this campaign. You can send Trader Joe’s a letter encouraging it to meet the challenge by going to

image courtesy AblazeTheMage, via Flickr