Free-range chickens in a field.

Labels on Shady Brook Farm turkey say “no growth promoting antibiotics,” while Perdue chicken packages claim “no antibiotics ever.” KFC serves chicken “raised without antibiotics important to human medicine.” Chipotle and Panera Bread say all the meat and poultry at their restaurants are “raised without antibiotics.” 

More than a third of consumers frequently buy meat, poultry, and other foods with a “no antibiotics” claim, according to a 2019 nationally representative CR survey of more than 1,000 American adults. And 53 percent of those surveyed believe such claims should mean that no antibiotics of any kind were given to the animal. But the truth is, although the various claims sound similar, not all of them really mean “no antibiotics.”

Inappropriate use of antibiotics in animals raised for food is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance, which is a global health threat. “This means that bacteria that cause illness don’t respond as well to antibiotics designed to kill them,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at CR. “The result is that what used to be an easily cured infection has the potential to become serious, even life-threatening.”

More On Food Labels

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2.8 million people develop an antibiotic-resistant infection each year. In more than 600,000 of those cases, the infection came from something an individual ate.

Choosing meat and poultry raised without antibiotics is an important way for individuals to help fight back against antibiotic resistance,” says Brian Ronholm, CR’s director for food policy. To help you know exactly what you’re buying, we’ve spelled out the meaning behind some of the most common claims and policies, and listed them from best to worst. (For more information on the meaning behind a variety of food labels, see Consumer Reports' Guide to Food Label Seals & Claims.)

Organic

Not giving antibiotics to animals raised for meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs is one of the many requirements that food producers must meet to use the Department of Agriculture’s organic seal on their products.

One exception: Chickens and turkeys can be given antibiotics in the hatchery while the chick is still in the egg and on its first day of life. But if you also see a “raised without antibiotics” claim on a chicken or turkey product in addition to the USDA organic label, it means antibiotics were not used at any point, even in the hatcheries. Food producers that use the organic seal undergo annual on-farm inspections, so the claim is verified.

Raised Without Antibiotics

This and related phrases, such as “no antibiotics ever” and “never given antibiotics,” mean no antibiotics of any kind were used in the raising of that animal. Sick animals that required antibiotics would be removed from the “no antibiotics” line and sent for processing with animals raised under conventional circumstances. Producers send documentation to the USDA to support their claim, but there are no inspections. However, if the package also sports a USDA Process Verified seal, it means that USDA inspectors have made a visit to the farm to confirm that antibiotics were not used.

There are a number of companies that produce or serve meat raised without antibiotics. For example, Bell & Evans falls into this category, as do Perdue and Tyson. Progresso is using no-antibiotics chicken in all its chicken soup varieties.  Applegate Farms and Coleman Natural produce no-antibiotics poultry, beef, and pork. Almost none of the meat served at Panera Bread or Chipotle has been raised with the drugs. Chick-fil-A and Subway have this policy for all its chicken. (You can find other restaurant chains’ antibiotic policies here.)

No Medically Important Antibiotics

This means antibiotics used to treat people—such as amoxicillin, erythromycin, and tetracycline—have never been given to the animals.

Sanderson Farms, the third-largest chicken producer in the U.S., has this policy, as do many fast-food restaurants, such as McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s for the chicken they serve, but not for other types of meat.

However, “no medically important antibiotics” doesn’t mean “no antibiotics.” And even antibiotics that aren’t medically important may lead to resistance to other antibiotics. “Resistance genes don’t discriminate,” says Tara C. Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of public health at Kent State University. Genes that create resistance to medically important antibiotics can tag along with what we think of as less crucial drugs, leading to similar consequences, in the long term, to using those critical ones.

And you have to read the wording of the claim carefully. Some companies—such as Sonic—eliminate medically important antibiotics in chicken only for growth purposes but may still use them for disease prevention.

“Eliminating medically important antibiotics for growth purposes is now the standard in the meat and poultry industry, so restaurants or meat producers that have this policy aren’t doing anything beyond what they’re already supposed to be doing,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at CR. (See ‘No Growth-Promoting Antibiotics,’ below.)

No Critically Important Antibiotics

This means the company has stopped using only some of the medically important antibiotics used to treat people.

And in the case of poultry, a “no critically important antibiotics” claim doesn’t translate to meaningful change in antibiotic use, Hansen says. Consumer Reports evaluated the list of antibiotics that the World Health Organization classifies as “critically important in human medicine” and found that most of them are not typically used in chicken production anyway.

No Growth-Promoting Antibiotics

The “no growth-promoting antibiotics” label, which is found on Shady Brook Farms and Honeysuckle White turkey (both owned by Cargill), means that no antibiotics were fed to the animal to speed up growth.

According to guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration, medically important antibiotics can no longer be used for growth promotion. However, drugs not used in people can be used for growth promotion (and all antibiotics can be used to prevent illness), so this practice is only a slight improvement over the industry standard.

Even though Cargill notes in the fine print on its label that antibiotics can be used for disease prevention, consumers may easily misinterpret this claim. “Many people will likely think it means ‘no antibiotics’ at all, or that using antibiotics for disease prevention is responsible use, or that it happens only rarely,” Ronholm says. “To preserve antibiotic effectiveness for people, the drugs should be used only when animals are sick.”  

One Health Certified

One Health Certified is a label developed primarily by meat and poultry industry experts and is currently used only on packages of chicken and turkey meat sold in supermarkets such as Aldi and BJ’s Wholesale Club. It’s meant to demonstrate a company’s commitment to animal welfare, environmental issues, and responsible antibiotic use.

The companies are audited for compliance, but the standards largely reflect the industry norm of raising animals in crowded indoor conditions, with the use of antibiotics to address health problems that may arise.

Restrictions on the use of antibiotics are minimal, and meat from animals treated with antibiotics can be sold with the One Health Certified label. In addition, under the label’s Lifecycle Assessment requirement, producers must measure their carbon footprint, but don’t have to take any action to reduce it. 

One Health Certified should not be confused with the concept of One Health, the premise of which is that the health of humans, animals, and the environment are all interrelated.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect current company policies and to add information on the One Health Certified label.


Which Meat Labels Can You Trust?

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.