Food label claims about antibiotic use are a hot topic in the United States. According to The Wall Street Journal sales of chicken labelled ‘antibiotic-free’ from retailers rose 34% by value in 2013–2014, driven public concerns about antibiotic use in food animal production.

Earlier this month, McDonald’s announced that, within two years, all chicken served at its 14,000 US restaurants will come from farms that raise birds without using the antibiotics important to human medicine. The statement was welcomed by leading US public health and environmental advocates (who are campaigning to ban antibiotics in farming) as a major step in combating the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It follows earlier initiatives: last year, for example, Chick-fil-A announced plans to phase out chicken raised with antibiotics; Perdue Foods and Tyson Food both said they would no longer use antibiotics in their chicken hatcheries; and Cargill announced it had removed growth promoting antibiotics from its turkey flocks.

Why the sudden interest in antibiotic-free food? US intensive farms use more antibiotics per pound of meat than any other nation (nearly 80% of antibiotics produced in the United States are used in food animal production – 29.9 million pounds in 2011 alone). However, unlike Britain and the rest of Europe, there are still no enforceable, verifiable standards for the use of antibiotics in food animal production in the United States, and in many other countries antibiotics are still routinely included in animal feed and water on industrial farms. These drugs are not used to treat sick animals: they are used at subtherapeutic levels to prevent inevitable disease among the billions of chickens, cattle and pigs raised intensively each year in overcrowded, stressful and unsanitary conditions. Scientists around the world – including those at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  – now emphatically view this routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics as a key cause of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So surely these industry-led antibiotic initiatives are a positive step to preserving life-saving antibiotics?

Unfortunately, the antibiotic-free label is nothing but greenwashing. The meat industry’s response to what can only be described as a short-sighted public campaign to ban antibiotics in farming (led primarily by well-meaning public health groups) has morphed into a misleading multi-million dollar marketing ploy that’s running out of control.

Take McDonald’s recent statement about only sourcing chicken “raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine.  Sounds great, but as always the devil is in the detail. A closer examination of their plans reveals nothing but media puff. According to McDonald’s, the human drugs it intends to prohibit from its supply chain are “not presently approved for use in food animals”. In other words, McDonald’s is triumphantly prohibiting drugs that would probably never be used in food animal production anyway. But what is McDonald’s doing about classes of antimicrobial drugs identified as critically important to human medicine and approved for food animal use? Absolutely nothing. McDonald’s simply states that the use of these crucial drugs is contingent “on local regulations, as well as veterinary authorisation (after confirmation of diagnosis) or use under a veterinary care program”. Again, nothing has changed. Nor is McDonald’s doing anything to address conditions on suppliers’ farms that might promote disease (and hence the use of antimicrobials). McDonald’s simply “encourages” them to adopt better systems and management. Sadly, most of the initiatives launched by other industry players are equally ineffectual.

Perhaps the greatest concern is that the promotion of antibiotic-free initiatives by industry and advocates alike as an ‘easy solution’ to the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria may ultimately undermine vital efforts to adopt new legislation, such as PAMTA (the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act), which would limit the misuse of antibiotics across all US intensive livestock operations, not just the minority of industrial farms reallocated to supply premium antibiotic-free products.

Buying or promoting antibiotic-free products won’t solve antibiotic resistance or aid sustainable food production. Why?

First, because it encourages a two-tier food system where most industrial livestock operations will continue to misuse antibiotics. If you take the antibiotic-free label at face value you’d probably assume that sick animals must never be treated with antibiotics. Clearly, such a position is neither ethically acceptable nor sustainable, so antibiotic-free programmes invariably require farmers to treat sick animals with antibiotics if it is the only way to avoid pain and suffering. The problem is they also dictate that if antibiotics are used the farmer can no longer sell meat, milk or eggs from the treated animal(s) into antibiotic-free supply chains.

We now have a situation in the United States where a minority of wealthy consumers are choosing antibiotic-free protein from animals that have never been treated with antibiotics under the false assumption they are doing the ‘right’ thing for their health, animal welfare and the environment. Meanwhile, the vast majority who cannot afford to buy this meat have to make do with ‘second class’ products from animals treated with antibiotics. Simply by maintaining a premium for antibiotic-free products, the meat processors and retailers ensure the majority continue to buy ‘affordable’ meat, eggs and dairy from mainstream industrial farms where routine antibiotics are still used.

Note that, in the event of disease on antibiotic-free farms, meat processors can always market any antibiotic-treated animals through conventional mainstream product lines and still make a profit. A recent article from the National Hog Farmer on the opportunities of antibiotic-free pig production concludes with the advice that “Producers must be prepared to lose premium occasionally as barn outbreaks can and do occur, and pigs will have to be sold as commercial animals.” Exactly where else do people think ‘treated’ food ends up?

It’s a win-win for the major meat processors and retailers: by offering some antibiotic-free products at a premium price, the industry can fool people into not only thinking they are buying a ‘better’ product, but that the industry is actually doing something good about antibiotics, thus negating calls for legislation (such as PAMTA) that would end the indiscriminate antibiotic abuse across all intensive farming systems in the United States.

A second reason why a market in antibiotic-free products won’t solve antibiotic resistance or aid sustainable food production is that the antibiotic-free label does absolutely nothing to change the industrial confinement paradigm. The farming operations supplying the major antibiotic-free brands are still intensive confinement systems, with all the associated welfare and environmental concerns. Antibiotic-free beef comes from cattle confined by the thousands on dirt feedlots and finished on inappropriate high-grain diets; antibiotic-free chickens are raised in vast intensive indoor broiler operations that rely on rapid-growth breeds; and antibiotic-free pigs spend their lives indoors in confinement systems where mutilations such as tail docking are routine management practices. And because antibiotic-free farmers must sell any sick animals they treat with antibiotics into other markets, there is a very strong economic incentive to withhold treatments, resulting in further potential health and welfare issues.

Bear in mind, too, that antibiotic-free programmes do not impose additional requirements on farmers to improve waste or environmental management practices. So we’re just as likely to see the vast greenhouse gas-emitting manure lagoons on antibiotic-free farms, with all the associated pollution risks to waterways and groundwater systems. With no additional requirements to give animals access to pasture or to consider the environmental impact of the animals’ diet, antibiotic-free farms are still entirely reliant on fertiliser-hungry commodity feeds, such as genetically modified soya and maize, with all the inherent environmental impacts associated with intensive monoculture grain farming. It’s business as usual, only with a nicer label.

No farming system can guarantee animals will never get sick. Of course, this should always be the goal, and raising animals outdoors on pasture and in ways that will maximise natural immunity and minimise stress will get pretty close. But farmers still need antibiotics in the toolbox as a last resort to treat individual sick animals (never to mask poor management). Used this way, pain and suffering in farm animals is minimised, the risk of disease is reduced and the efficacy of antibiotics – for humans and livestock – is protected. It’s not rocket science and many thousands of farms across the world already follow this approach. It may not be as catchy as ‘antibiotic-free’ farming, but it doesn’t need to be. We don’t routinely sprinkle antibiotics on our food to prevent disease; we (chiefly) use them as a last resort to treat illness. Farmers can use antibiotics in a safe and responsible manner to treat individual sick animals, just as in human medicine.

Unfortunately, the blinkered campaign for antibiotic-free production in the United States has played directly into the hands of the industry – and could squander the opportunity to achieve real change. What we urgently need is robust legislative action to end antibiotic abuse on every US farm, not just a minority, as soon as possible. This kind of legislation already exists in other parts of the world – particularly in Europe.  And while these controls are far from perfect, the United States can learn from their progress and avoid their mistakes.

Photograph: United Soybean Board

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