About 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to animals raised for food—including hogs, cattle, chickens, and turkeys. The drugs are mostly used to prevent disease or promote growth, not to treat sick animals. This practice is contributing to the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance, where the drugs no longer work to destroy the bacteria that cause serious, sometimes life-threatening, illnesses. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration released voluntary guidelines to reduce the use of antibiotics on farms and some meat and poultry companies and restaurant chains have pledged to reduce the production or sale
of meat or poultry from animals raised with antibiotics. These are good first steps, but government and industry must do more to create meaningful change. Below are the steps Consumer Reports recommends. To make your voice heard on the issue, click here.

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The Government Should:

  • Ban the routine use of antibiotics important to human medicine. The FDA has issued voluntary guidelines that phase out the use of these drugs for growth promotion but still allow their use for disease prevention with a veterinarian’s approval. That leaves the door open to animals getting antibiotics routinely. At a minimum, the FDA should prohibit all uses of medically important antibiotics except for the responsible treatment of sick animals. Congress should pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), sponsored by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter of New York, to require the FDA to move in that direction, and state legislatures should establish similar requirements. Ideally, CR believes, no drugs should be given to healthy animals routinely.
  • Improve monitoring of antibiotic use. Right now, because of inadequate and untimely data, it’s very difficult to measure how well programs to reduce the use of antibiotics are working—and it’s impossible to identify problem areas. The FDA, working with the Department of Agriculture, should collect more detailed data from feed mills and veterinarians on the actual use of antibiotics in food animals—including the particular drug, animal species, and purpose for which the drug was used—and publicly release the data. Congress should pass the Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency in Animals Act (DATA) or similar legislation that would make that mandatory.
  • Prohibit misleading labeling. The USDA requires producers making a no-antibiotics claim to submit paperwork that states that animals were raised without antibiotics. But the agency has approved some claims that imply “no antibiotics,” when in fact they can still be used for disease prevention. One example, found on turkey, is “no antibiotics used for growth promotion” accompanied by the USDA Process Verified shield. The claim does not mean “no antibiotics,” but the shield gives a false sense of credibility. The USDA should not approve such claims unless antibiotics are never used. The department should also address the misleading use of the “natural” label, which can be used on meat and poultry raised with antibiotics and other drugs.

The Food Industry Should:

  • Implement more sustainable agriculture practices. The vast majority of animals are raised or finished in crowded, confined, and unsanitary conditions, where they are susceptible to disease outbreaks. Drug use in animal agriculture will be more likely to decline if changes are made to the way animals are raised.
  • Use clear and meaningful labels. Those such as the USDA Organic seal, or a true “no antibiotics” claim accompanied by a USDA Process Verified shield, are reliable because they are independently verified. Other labels, which either prohibit antibiotic use or allow antibiotics only for the treatment of sick animals, include Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership, and American Grassfed. Companies should not use the “natural” label.
  • Offer consumers more sustainable options. Grocery stores and restaurants—large chains in particular—should phase out the sale of meat and poultry raised with the routine use of antibiotics and other drugs. They should use their purchasing power to encourage suppliers to raise animals in more humane and hygienic conditions.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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If you want to buy meat that's from healthy animals raised without antibiotics, "Consumer 101" TV show host Jack Rico explains which labels to look for when food shopping.