I was stunned to hear a mother express guilt about being “unable to afford meat that doesn’t have antibiotics in it.”
I wondered how many parents who are trying to provide the best for their children have the misconception that their kids are consuming large doses of antibiotics because they can’t afford meat labeled “antibiotic free.”
One look at common questions being asked on Internet search engines tells us this misconception is distressingly common: “Are there antibiotics in my meat?” “Why is it bad to eat meat with antibiotics?”
The angst was evident in recent consumer interviews conducted by The Center for Food Integrity (CFI). Responses to the question “Are you concerned about antibiotics in your meat?” included, “I see antibiotics have less power and I can’t help wondering if it’s because we’re ingesting them,” and “I think it can cause antibiotic resistance problems in humans. I don’t think they should be used.”
“Free from” labels can lead to incorrect assumptions. In the case of antibiotics, the food system has failed consumers by not doing a good job of explaining labels.
There is one undeniable fact that should bring comfort to parents trying to provide safe, healthy meals for their families on a budget: multiple safeguards are in place to ensure the meat we buy in the grocery store – regardless of the label – is safe.
Let’s clear the confusion.
There are many perspectives, but two predominant schools of thought regarding the use of antibiotics to treat animals.
Some favor ending their use in animals in hopes of slowing antibiotic resistance in people. Researchers mapping the cause of resistance are still putting the puzzle together, but this group prefers “antibiotic free” meat, which means the animals were never treated with antibiotics. Some food companies have gone to the more descriptive meat label “raised without antibiotics.”
Meanwhile, most farmers and veterinarians believe they have an ethical obligation to treat sick animals, and use antibiotics when needed. They often compare it to the feelings of a parent when a child gets sick and needs an antibiotic; farmers and veterinarians feel a similar obligation to relieve suffering and disease in their animals. They believe the solution is to ensure the responsible use of antibiotics – in animals and people – but not to take away this treatment tool.
Whichever perspective you align with, here’s the important point: neither group is suggesting there are unsafe levels of antibiotics in meat, whether it’s labeled “antibiotic free” or not. The fact is, there are multiple safeguards in place to ensure all meat sold to consumers is safe.
Before an antibiotic is ever approved for use in animals, it must go through a rigorous Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process. The process begins with testing to determine how long an antibiotic remains in an animal’s body, which is called the withdrawal period. Withdrawal periods are required by law. Animals cannot be processed until the drug, in this case the antibiotic, has cleared from their bodies.
Additional studies are conducted to assess the potential for the development of resistant bacteria and to examine whether public health could be affected by using the antibiotic in animals.
On top of that, food companies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) routinely test meat during processing to confirm there are no unsafe antibiotic residues. This is true for all meat. With or without an “antibiotic free” label.
So, parents take heart. Whether the meat you buy is labeled “antibiotic free” or not, its safety is confirmed by extensive studies, mandatory withdrawal periods, and routine testing to ensure there are no unsafe antibiotic residues.