Attention shoppers: Potential biohazard in the meat aisle

Take action: Tell FDA we need real controls on antibiotics in animal feedlots,  not voluntary “guidance”

Take action: Ask Trader Joes to be even more of a leader on this issue.

I hope that someone is sharing the new “Meat Without Drugs” report by Consumers Union (CU) with the meat department managers of America’s grocery stores.    I gather that about 39,000 people have sent word of this publication to Trader Joes already, but hopefully other retailers are also following along.  The report sheds new light on the problem of antibiotic resistant “superbugs” in the food supply - light that shines particularly bright on the role of consumers and retailers.

As previously reported on Switchboard, about 80% of the antibiotics sold in this country are used in animal agriculture.  Most of these drugs are fed to animals that are not sick for the purpose of hastening animal growth and to compensate for over-crowding and poor sanitation.  This practice of frequent, low-dose feeding  to many animals is known breed antibiotic resistant bacteria or “superbugs” that can infect people with hard-to-treat, life-threatening diseases like MRSA.

CU’s report makes it clear that retailers can be the hero or villain in this story.  Consider:

After surveying 136 stores, CU reports antibiotic-free meat choices are available in almost all major grocery stores and sometimes at prices competitive with conventional (and presumably superbug breeding) meat.  Whole Foods stands above all the rest as the only surveyed store that has gone exclusively antibiotic fee. 

NRDC to Whole Foods:  We salute you for this important achievement.

While CU doesn’t give us the number of conventional meat products in each store, my read of the report is that  most stores are only offering a small handful of these superior meat products, while stacking the shelves with the more conventional superbug breeding variety.  Trader Joes and Publix offered the highest number of antibiotic-free* meat choices, after Whole Foods.   At a few stores, including Sam’s Club, Food 4 Less, Food Lion, and Save-a-Lot, CU researchers could find no antibiotic-free meat choices.

CU’s report also gives the findings of a nationally representative opinion poll of consumer opinions about all this: Sixty percent  said they’d pay more for antibiotic free meat and 37% said they’d pay a dollar per pound more.   Meat department managers, are you reading this?

Seventy two percent said they are “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about the widespread use of antibiotics creating new superbugs and about two thirds are worried by residues on meat (they have good reason to worry about superbugs on meat, as I will describe in a future blog).

My takeaway from all this:

1)      The presence of antibiotic free meat throughout the nation’s grocery stores demonstrates  that animal producers can do this.

2)      Consumers actually do understand that the misuse of antibiotics in livestock production is a health hazard for all of us.

3)      Retailers are in the driver seat and will determine which products appear on the store shelf.  They can be the heroes in this story for awakening their meat suppliers to the growing consumer demand for safer meat choices.  

We’ll see how this plays out.  Looks like about a thousand new emails were sent to Trader Joes since I started writing this blog…


*NRDC does not oppose giving antibiotics to sick animals.