This news is going to be everywhere today, but it’s solidly in the topics I care about (and you readers care about — at least I think you do), so I’m going to cover it regardless.
The magazine Consumer Reports is publishing a report and poll on US consumers’ attitudes toward the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. From everyone’s reactions when I write about this, I thought people cared about this issue, but the numbers are a little surprising even to me: 86 percent of shoppers in a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults said they wanted meat raised without antibiotics to be available in their local supermarkets. Some other key numbers:
- 72 percent of shoppers were concerned about overuse of agricultural antibiotics creating superbugs
- 67 percent worried about routine antibiotic dosing in livestock feed
- 65 percent thought there might be antibiotic residues in meat they consume
- 61 percent worried about antibiotics entering the environment from mega-farm runoff
- 61 percent were willing to spend at least 5 cents more per pound in order to buy meat raised without antibiotics
- 37 percent were willing to spend an additional dollar per pound.
The poll is just one part of the report, Meat On Drugs: The Overuse of Antibiotics in Food Animals and What Supermarkets and Consumers Can Do to Stop It. It also contains the results of a secret-shopper survey of 136 supermarkets in 23 states that checked on the availability of meat raised without inappropriate antibiotics (TL; DR: Whole Foods had the best selection, a number of big supermarket chains had at least some, and a few had none), and a really useful guide to the wide variety of label claims that may indicate that antibiotics were not used during the meat animal’s life. (See the label guide at right.)
(Editing to add: What we’re talking about here is the use of growth-promoter/sub-therapeutic micro-doses of antibiotics, which do not cure disease, but make animals put on weight faster; or prophylactic antibiotics, which are treatment-sized doses given to an entire flock or herd to prevent disease even though they are not sick. We are not talking about withholding antibiotics from an animal that is demonstrably ill. That would be against animal welfare, and no one I know supports it.)
One of the report’s most encouraging findings is a price survey that demonstrates that — despite the assumptions made by the poll respondents — meat raised without antibiotics doesn’t have to be extraordinarily expensive. Antibiotic-free chicken at three chains — Trader Joe’s, Jewel-Osco and Publix — was priced as low as $1.29 per pound, lower than the national average. Among discouraging findings: Store employees often didn’t know what their stores were offering, and couldn’t explain to shoppers what the various labels meant.
The report concludes with recommendations for consumers and food retailers, and also for the big policy players on this issue: Congress, the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Department of Agriculture, the meat and poultry industries and the pharmaceutical industry. And that leads into the second part of this news: The report is part of a larger push by Consumers’ Union, the nonprofit parent of Consumer Reports, and a coalition of other groups. The campaign is titled Meat Without Drugs – Stop the Superbugs, and launches today with a website, FAQ on the policy and economic issues and what other countries are doing, and a link to a petition aimed at grocery stores, asking them to stop selling meat raised with inappropriate antibiotic use. First target of the petition is Trader Joe’s — not because they’re a bad actor, but because they have already demonstrated progressive attitudes, refusing to sell products containing trans fats, artificial colors or GMO ingredients.
The campaign also includes a compelling video shot by Food Inc. director Robert Kenner and voiced by actor Bill Paxton. Here’s a peek.