Dominoes falling: A year-in-review in the consumer movement for antibiotic-free meat

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It’s been a banner year for the consumer movement demanding more responsible use of antibiotics in the meat industry and more antibiotic-free meat and poultry options in our grocery stores, restaurants, and schools. The average grocery store shopper isn’t waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to take meaningful action to curb antibiotic misuse and overuse in the meat industry. As the FDA continues to be a laggard, consumers are driving real change in the marketplace and the dominos are falling.

For reasons that include personal health, environmental concerns, animal welfare, taste, and quality, consumers have been increasingly seeking alternatives to conventional meat products, which are typically produced with routine use of antibiotics. Large meat buyers are responding. Industry leaders in business and institutional leaders in schools alike are taking action to move to antibiotic-free meat and poultry at scale.

Consumer brands, restaurants, and grocery retailers, highlighted in a new set of case studies recently published by NRDC, have responded to growing consumer demand and now report sourcing meat from farmers raising meat and poultry without reliance on antibiotics. Today, these companies successfully market their antibiotic-free offerings to customers across the country, selling hundreds of millions of pounds of meat and poultry each year.

Companies like Applegate, Chipotle, and Panera Bread are leading their industries to make antibiotic-free options more readily available to American consumers. Following suit, Chick-Fil-A made public commitments this year to transition to chicken raised without antibiotics within five years.

Whole Foods leads the way amongst grocery retailers by guaranteeing that 100% of the meat and poultry sold in its stores is never treated with antibiotics. For those living in and around my hometown of New York City, online grocer FreshDirect offers a wide range of antibiotic-free meat and poultry products. And almost all grocery stores now offer antibiotic-free or organic meat options.

As folks at many of these companies will tell you, sales of chicken, turkey, pork, and beef raised without antibiotics remain a small segment of the market, but demand is growing fast. Meat and poultry raised without antibiotics is going mainstream. The Wall Street Journal put it best with a terrific recent article titled: Meat Companies Go Antibiotics-Free as More Consumers Demand It.

Consider the following:

  • Antibiotic-free meat still likely accounts for roughly 5% of total meat sales. However, according to reporting published in 2012, by some estimates sales were up 25% over the three prior years.
  • In 2011, USDA Certified Organic meats — just one segment of the antibiotic-free market — were the fastest growing segment of the $31 billion organic foods industry. In 2013, sales of organic meat, poultry, and fish increased by 11% year-over-year to $675 million.
  • A small but growing share of broiler chicken production is organic or antibiotic-free. And according to a Consumer Reports supermarket survey, chicken raised without antibiotics is sometimes sold at a competitive price with conventional poultry. Brands marketing these products in supermarkets include Fieldale Farms, Springer Mountain Farms, Mary’s Chicken, Murray’s, Bell and Evans, Miller Amish, and Perdue’s Coleman Natural, and Harvestland.
  • Even the largest chicken companies are reducing their reliance on antibiotics. Perdue Farms — the third largest chicken producer in the U.S. — announced this year that it’s now raising 95% of its birds without antibiotics important to human medicine, with the remaining use limited to treating sick chickens. On the heels of that announcement, Tyson Foods — the country’s largest chicken producer — announced that as of October 1st, it was discontinuing use of antibiotics in its 35 hatcheries, as I discussed here.

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It’s not just the private sector that’s moving.

This week, the Urban School Food Alliance, a coalition of the largest U.S. school districts that includes New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando announced a landmark antibiotic-free standard for companies to follow when supplying chicken to its schools — one of the most popular items served at school cafeterias across the country.

Together, these school districts serve nearly 2.9 million students daily and procure more than $550 million in food and supplies annually. By combining their purchasing power, these districts are seeking to help drive down nationwide costs for antibiotic-free chicken and other more responsibly produced food products, while setting higher standards for the quality of food served in public schools. The move will not only have a dramatic impact on the quality of school meals, but will also help push the entire food industry to move away from animals raised with improper antibiotic use.

These changes haven’t happened in a vacuum. They’re because Americans are awakening to the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance and pointing to the misuse of antibiotics in livestock production as a top sustainability concern.

Every day, concerned consumers and parents are learning the shocking facts and demanding change. Today, 80% of antibiotics used in America are given to farm animals. When healthy animals are routinely fed antibiotics, those same antibiotics may not work when we need them most: when our kids get strep, our parents get pneumonia, or our loved ones face a life-threatening illness.

The consequences are all too real. Last year, the CDC linked Foster Farms — the top chicken producer on the west coast — to an outbreak of dangerous antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg that started in March 2013 and didn’t end until this past summer. By spreading antibiotic resistant bacteria to our communities and kitchens, Foster Farms contributed to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. NRDC is calling on Foster Farms to help keep antibiotics working for people by disclosing its antibiotics use and publicly committing to only use medically important antibiotics to treat sick birds and never for routine, nontherapeutic purposes.

In the year ahead, we hope Foster Farms and others in the industry hear this call and commit to antibiotics stewardship in their operations and supply chains like so many of their peers . Because this year has been one of tremendous progress and there’s no indication that the antibiotic-free consumer movement is slowing down.