'No-Antibiotic' Claims on Beef May Not Be Reliable, Study Finds

Consumers should look for labels such as 'organic' or 'grass-fed' instead

Person looking at beef packaging labels at the grocery store. Photo: Kilito Chan/Getty Images

When you see the claim “Raised Without Antibiotics” on a package of beef, you expect just that—the cattle weren’t given antibiotics. But a study out Thursday in the journal Science suggests that may not always be the case.

Researchers at George Washington University and Food In-Depth, a company that’s developed antibiotic tests for livestock, tested urine samples from 669 cattle raised under a “No Antibiotics Ever” program overseen by the Department of Agriculture. They found that 15 percent tested positive for at least one antibiotic.

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Cattle can legally be given antibiotics in their feed or water to treat or prevent disease. The widespread prophylactic use of the drugs contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance, where bacteria become immune to the drugs’ effects. Illnesses in people caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be serious and difficult to treat. 

“Disease prevention is especially important in large feed yards, but there are less risky ways to accomplish that goal,” says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports. “However, it takes more time and resources to raise animals in a more sustainable way where they are healthy and don’t get sick in the first place, which creates a financial incentive to commit fraud.”

No Federal Testing for Verification

The researchers tested animals from 33 “raised without antibiotics” certified feed yards at a single undisclosed U.S. slaughterhouse between February and September 2021. During that time, the slaughterhouse processed more than 38,000 cattle from those feed yards, and researchers randomly selected the animals to test. The cattle that tested positive for antibiotics came from 14 of the 33 feed yards.

“None of the cattle should have tested positive," says Lance Price, PhD, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University, and a co-author of the study. Several feed yards met that standard all or most of the time, but in three of the yards, all of the cattle tested positive, he says. “That suggests to us that there’s some systemic use.”

To use a “no antibiotic” claim—such as “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever”—on meat packages, companies must submit their label and supporting documentation to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture. A USDA spokesperson told Consumer Reports that it verifies documentation provided by farmers seeking approval to use the claim, and that “labels may be rescinded if there is evidence that the statement is not truthful.”

But companies have to submit that documentation only once, and the USDA doesn’t do its own inspections that the animals were, in fact, not given antibiotics, says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety and testing at CR. 

“The program runs on the honor system,” he says. “Farmers are supposed to treat sick animals with antibiotics when necessary, but those animals are then supposed to be removed from the herd and sold as conventional cattle. They also aren’t supposed to put animals that are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent disease into beef destined for the ‘no antibiotics market.’ This study suggests that that doesn’t always happen.”

The lack of independent verification is the reason stand-alone “no antibiotics” claims received a Poor rating in CR’s Food Label Guide to Seals and Claims.

Price believes the USDA should develop a program where cattle raised without antibiotics are tested, so the claim can be verified. “If the USDA isn’t going to test, then the retailers that are making a big markup on these products have to do it,” he says.

“In a transparent system where there’s regular testing, farmers are not going to take a chance on pushing those animals through,” Price says. “But in a system where it’s all based on a signature and a handshake, I think the financial incentives are hard to overcome.”

Ethan Lane, vice president of governmental affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade group, says its members are “committed to the judicious use of antimicrobial drugs.” He adds that the NCBA believes “it is important that cattle producers are adhering to requirements set forward by USDA for labeling claims such as ‘raised without antibiotics’ or others.”

‘Someone Cheated’

Some food claims are independently verified by third parties. That includes cattle raised for the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Animal Welfare Certified program, used by Whole Foods and other retailers. Part of the requirements is that animals not receive antibiotics, although the cattle aren’t directly tested. (CR has not yet rated the GAP claim.)

Yet, here too, the study researchers found problems: 26 percent of the designated GAP cattle had been given antibiotics.

Anne Malleau, executive director of GAP, said the organization hadn’t received details of the study’s findings but will launch an investigation as soon as it does. “Assuming the data is accurate, a subtherapeutic antibiotic was administered, which is a clear violation of GAP certification standards. In short, someone cheated,” she says. “And without further information it is impossible for us to know at what point this happened.”

A spokesperson for Whole Foods told CR, “We have extensively reviewed the information made available to us and have no reason to believe that the cattle tested in this study ended up in products in our stores. We take compliance very seriously and never hesitate to act if a supplier has failed to meet our rigorous quality standards."

What You Can Do

Beef raised with no antibiotics costs more to produce, Price says. And consumers have told CR through our surveys that they are willing to pay more for such products. 

But "buyers need to trust these labels so that they can be assured they are not paying a premium price for a conventional product,” CR’s Ronholm says.

The problem, says Price, is that while 85 percent of the animals tested came up negative, “how do you know which ones?”

“I think anybody who’s been spending money on Raised Without Antibiotics-labeled products should write to the USDA and talk to their retailers and ask, ‘Hey, what are you doing to verify these claims?’” Price says.

For now, consider these steps to help assure you’re buying beef that’s been raised without antibiotics. 

Choose “certified organic” products. The study did not include any organically raised cattle. But any meat bearing the USDA organic seal must be raised without antibiotics. And though tests of the animals’ feed or urine are not required, farms and processing facilities are inspected at least once a year, and are subject to surprise visits to ensure that they comply with the guidelines. CR gives the organic label an Excellent rating because of its strict standards.

Look for "process verified" labels. A “no antibiotics’’ label is verified when it’s accompanied by the USDA Processed Verified shield or USDA Organic seal on the package, says CR’s Rogers. This label is currently much more common on poultry than beef, Rogers says. Food producers that seek a “Process Verified” label submit to both administrative audits and on-site inspections. Specifically, among other things, USDA auditors visit feed yards to check that feed does not include antibiotics and  reviews testing records.

Opt for grass fed. Beef with the American Grassfed Seal comes from cattle that were raised on pasture all their lives—no feed yards. The farms are inspected by a third party every 15 months. (CR gives this seal an Excellent rating.) Part of the seal’s requirements are that the cattle aren’t given antibiotics. 

While consumers can choose more meaningful labels, CR’s Ronholm believes a more systemic approach is required to fix the larger issue.

“Hopefully, these findings will begin a greater conversation about the need for the independent verification of these types of labels to ensure their value. If consumers deem these labels to be meaningless, it will harm the overall goals of the causes they are meant to support."