As news reports have noted, the Food and Drug Administration's decision to phase out the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in cows, pigs and chickens raised for meat is a step in the right direction for human health in this country. Each year, more than 2 million Americans are infected and sickened by "superbugs" whose growth and spread is facilitated by the overuse of these antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 23,000 people have died from said "superbugs."
But what has been less widely appreciated about the FDA's new policy is this: It could represent an equally significant step for animal welfare in this country.
That may sound counterintuitive -- after all, the antibiotics can improve the animals' health -- but it's true. That's because the wholesale use of antibiotics for animals in this country often represents a solution producers use to promote growth and boost health among animals raised in conditions that are otherwise overcrowded, unsanitary, and not natural.
If the new FDA policy really works, despite its loopholes, producers will be faced with a choice. They can continue to raise their animals under the same conditions they raise them now, and see their profits squeezed by slower growth and higher rates of disease and mortality. Or they can improve conditions, raise their prices accordingly, and hope that consumers don't punish them. So the new situation represents a major opportunity for a change in livestock production methods.
My guess is that producers who do improve conditions and raise their prices will be pleasantly surprised by the consumer's response. At Panera Bread, we voluntarily began to introduce chicken raised without antibiotics to our menu about a decade ago, after we visited a Pennsylvania farm and had a kind of epiphany. Unlike many conventional farms we had seen, where the birds are raised in overcrowded houses caked with generations of excrement, these birds paraded in spacious and surprisingly clean houses. Soft lighting illuminated their way, while instrumental music supplemented their coos and controls regulated the temperature. When the time came for harvesting, the procedure was also handled as thoughtfully and humanely as I had ever seen.
To me, the chicken produced by this farm tasted immeasurably better than the standard fare. And although the impact on "superbugs" and human health was less widely appreciated 10 years ago, the values reflected in the farm's processes reinforced our own evolving policies.
We very much wanted to move in this direction. Panera Bread's prices for these high-rent poultry, however, were 20 to 40 percent higher. We had to be concerned: How would consumers react?
We took the risk, and were rewarded. Our customers didn't mind paying extra for something they believed tasted better.
Over time, prices came down for the industry when we committed to select proteins raised without antibiotics and brought scale. Today, all of our chicken, sausage and ham used in salads and sandwiches are raised without the use of antibiotics. We're not stopping there. Recently, we have expanded our commitment to roasted turkey.
This is not to say that we don't have much further to go in understanding animal welfare and taking action; we do. It's also not to suggest that others haven't also led in this area: Whole Foods has been selling meat raised without antibiotics and other "clean foods" at the retail level and is an industry phenomenon. Still, we're cognizant that the leading companies in this arena are those that appeal to consumers who are higher income, health-conscious or both. So our question is this: will the broad consumer market be as supportive if more producers move in this direction?
Perhaps the FDA's new policy is only a first step. I hope so.
Americans who think they have a "right" to the cheaper food that antibiotics help to provide should recognize that it really isn't so cheap. The hidden costs to our health and the environment are incalculable.
And so is the impact on the lives of the animals we eat.