Harnessing our "get rid of pink slime" people power to get drugs out of our meat

UPDATED: June 27, 2012

Remember the controversy over pink slime? That amalgam of beef connective tissue, trimmings and scraps spun through a centrifuge to separate fat from protein, treated with ammonia to kill bacteria, and then sold to restaurants, supermarkets, and schools as filler for hamburgers? 

Nauseating stuff.  But you know what I liked about it? It showed our collective power.

The backlash over pink slime was an important tipping point in the public’s impact on food politics. Fueled by a healthy dose of social media, we said “Reform!” and we got it. It took only days for major buyers such as McDonald’s and Safeway to respond to the high-pitched consumer outcry by committing to pull the product from restaurants and shelves.

No small feat. But now that consumers have had the experience of being disgusted by the dark and wholly unappetizing truths of the industrial livestock industry, incensed by the lack of transparency in food labeling, and successfully mobilizing for change, it’s hard to imagine things will ever be quite the same. Large food buyers have been put on notice: consumers will increasingly press for more transparency in meat supply chains and healthier, more sustainably produced options.

So now it’s time to take our proven power and set our sights on getting drugs out of our meat.

We know that pink slime is just the (gross) tip of the proverbial iceberg—a symptom of a broken industrial meat production system that raises billions of animals in conditions so cruel and dirty that is requires a dizzying cocktail of drugs to keep it working, including antibiotics. To put this practice in perspective, a whopping 80% of all the antibiotics sold in the United States are not used on people but on animals. Shockingly, the vast majority aren't even used to treat illness, but rather to make animals grow faster or prevent disease in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

Indeed farm animals that are not sick are so routinely fed low doses of antibiotics—and at such a massive scale—that it is leading to the development of dangerous "superbugs": strains of pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella  that are resistant to the commonly prescribed drugs we rely on. Essentially, millions of animals are not “finishing the course” of antibiotics, as our doctors carefully instruct us to do when we take these precious drugs.

The result?  A national public health crisis. The science is telling us that the routine use of low-dose antibiotics in intensive livestock farming is a major contributor to the rapid development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria—not in the distant future, but today.

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 99,000 people died of hospital-acquired infections in 2002, the most recent year for which data are available. According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the vast majority of those infections were caused by these antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

So while doctors work hard to use medically important antibiotics like penicillin judiciously, the livestock and pharmaceutical industries continue to put our health—and one of the most important medical discoveries in human history—at risk just to squeeze out a little bit more profit.

It’s time, once more, to flex our consumer muscle and say no more. And now we have a tool to do just that.

Last week, Consumer’s Union—together with FixFood, a social media action project led by award-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner—launched the Meat Without Drugs Campaign. It's the first national marketplace campaign to urge supermarkets to sell only meat raised without antibiotics. And I’m proud to say that NRDC is an active member of the campaign.

Check out the campaign site and this excellent video:


So let’s pink slime this issue.

Educate yourself, educate your friends, and speak up. Watch, tweet, Facebook, and otherwise share the Meat Without Drugs video and website with your networks. And sign the Meat Without Drugs petition calling on Trader Joe’s to move to 100% meat raised without antibiotics in its meat cases. Trader Joe’s already carries significant amounts of meat raised without antibiotics and is one of the leading national grocery chains best poised to make this commitment. Let’s push them to cross the finish line.

Consumers—and the supermarkets that sell us our meat—have a choice. As of 2010, the average American bought and ate about 200 pounds of meat and poultry per year. If supermarkets no longer stocked meat and poultry raised with antibiotics, antibiotic use in livestock production would drop dramatically. It’s that simple. But to make it happen, supermarket managers need to hear from us that we no longer want drugged up meat in our stores or on our plates.

We also need to send FDA—the agency charged with protecting public health by regulating the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture—the same message.

Unless we take action now, we face the terrifying possibility of a world where antibiotics no longer work. So help us shout “Reform!” Let’s get drugs out of our meat and keep life-saving antibiotics working for us when we need them.

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