Chickens in a field.

Labels on Shady Brook Farm turkey say “no growth promoting antibiotics.” Progresso advertises that its soups contain chicken with “no added antibiotics,” and some Tyson labels say “no antibiotics ever.” Chipotle and Panera Bread make note that all the meat they serve is “raised without antibiotics,” while McDonald’s has advertised that its chicken is raised without medically important antibiotics.

Some version of a “no antibiotics” claim has recently become a selling point for many supermarket and restaurant brands—and for good reason. A recent nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of over 1,000 people found that 43 percent say they always or often buy meat raised without antibiotics at the supermarket. Nearly 6 in 10 people would be more likely to eat at a restaurant if the meat and poultry was raised without antibiotics, and would pay more for a “no antibiotics” burger.

“Some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to animals—not people—in their feed or water, mostly to promote growth and/or prevent disease,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “And that’s a major contributor to the public health threat of antibiotic resistance, which is when the bacteria that cause infections become resistant to the effects of the drugs designed to kill them.”

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Consumer Reports’ calculations of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that about 20 percent of people sickened by antibiotic-resistant infections got ill from something they ate.

Although it’s beneficial for consumers to have no-antibiotics choices at restaurants and supermarkets, these different claims mean very different things. In some cases, you might think that the animals were not given antibiotics at all, when in fact they were.

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.

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 (for its retail chicken products). (Perdue says that 75 percent of its turkey are raised without antibiotics.) Progresso is using no-antibiotics chicken in all its chicken soup varieties. Applegate Farms and Coleman Natural produce no-antibiotics poultry, beef, and pork, and almost none of the meat served at Panera Bread or Chipotle has been raised with the drugs. Subway has this policy for all its chicken. (You can find other restaurant chains’ 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.

Many fast-food restaurants, such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s, have this policy for the chicken they serve, but not for other types of meat. Burger King and KFC have pledged to achieve this for chicken by the end of 2018, while Jack in the Box and Starbucks say they will do so by 2020.

The problem: This still allows for the use of antibiotics that aren’t medically important, which can 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.

“This practice is now the industry standard [see ‘No Growth-Promoting Antibiotics,’ below], so companies that have this policy aren’t doing anything beyond what all companies are supposed to be doing,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst and food label expert at Consumer Reports.

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, Halloran 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,” Halloran says. “To preserve antibiotic effectiveness for people, the drugs should be used only when animals are sick.”