Antibiotic-free meat: Campaigners warn labels could mislead consumers and jeopardise animal welfare

The Independent – Friday 24th June

An ‘antibiotic-free’ label is about to hit the UK with a trademark registered by the Karro Food Group. The label features a smiling pig along with the phrase and it will be the first such label to appear on British pork – but expect more to follow. The label is widely used on meat in the US, with an increasing number of companies going ‘antibiotic-free’ as the trend has spread through the meat industry. However, campaigners are concerned that the label could do more harm than good, claiming it is both misleading and could lead to animal welfare infringements – animals not being given antibiotics when they are sick or being put down rather than treated.

The depleting effectiveness of antibiotics has been much in the news over the past few years, as the spread of antimicrobial resistance becomes an ever-greater threat. Their use in intensive farming, especially on a sub-therapeutic level is one of the primary practices driving this. But going ‘antibiotic-free’ isn’t quite the answer needed, because animals sometimes need to be treated with them. Peter Mundy, writing for the SFT, is concerned, commenting that “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…has morphed into a misleading multi-million dollar marketing ploy that’s running out of control.” Because animals should be treated with antibiotics if they are actually ill, Mundy argues it creates a two-tiered system in which ‘antibiotic-free’ meat becomes a premium product while continued antibiotic use remains the norm. The label doesn’t actually drive the cessation of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use in animals – which is what is desperately needed.

Perdue aims to make chickens happier and more comfortable

The New York Times – Sunday 26th June 

Animal welfare is an increasing concern for an informed public and chickens, in particular, are benefitting from it. In the US, a number of the major chicken producers are making changes to the conditions in which chickens are raised, driven largely by consumer demands. Perdue is having something of an ephiphany in their animal welfare practices. This has been driven in part to its move to become ‘antibiotic-free’, which has also meant that it had to lower stocking levels and improve the cleanliness of its chicken houses. Further, its purchase of companies like Colemans Natural Foods and Niman Ranch, has made it the largest producer of organic chicken in the US. The company seems to be recognizing the consumer kudos it gets from its association with premium meats and better animal welfare. Building on this, it is now having its farmers put windows into chicken houses so the birds have some natural light and is providing some provision for chickens to pursue their natural proclivities such as perching and scratching. Most notably, it is putting its birds to sleep before slaughter, a big improvement in the profound stress levels these animals suffer.

Perdue’s changes could generate more humane practice throughout the industry. But it’s important for consumers to realise that these changes are still premised on indoor confinement and largely unhappy lives.

Roberts, Stabenow reach deal on GMO labelling

Successful Farming – Thursday 23rd June

Federal legislation on GMO-labelling is finally coming to fruition. A new law requiring the labelling of GMOs will shortly be voted on in the Senate and it is expected to pass. While this much contested issue will finally be resolved, the law is unlikely to be fully satisfactory to the groups that have been fighting for it the past few years. This is because there has been some compromise along the way and the biggest of these is that a ‘no GMO’ label won’t be required on the package – instead the information will be embedded in bar- and QR codes that can be scanned by consumers using their smart phones – making it just that little bit harder for consumers to get the information they need. The federal law would also annul more vigorous state legislation like that of Vermont, and prevent states enacting their own labelling requirements if they differed from federal law.

Industry, of course, has been terrified by the prospect of a visible label on their packaging that indicates their products contain GMOs, recognizing that it’s likely to put consumers off. But they also know that sooner or later they will have to concede, given the widespread pressure from the public who want more transparency in food production. It’s been costing the food industry major money to fight various GMO labelling initiatives across the country.

Nathanael Johnson of Grist thinks the codes aren’t a bad compromise on GMOs and maybe he’s right – though the omission of products subject to gene editing, a subset of genetic modification is perhaps disingenuous at best. Johnson feels that they might open the opportunity for a wider array of information on our food to be included, like the GHG emitted in its production or the labour conditions of its workers which are arguably as important as its genetic modification.

Glyphosate gets eleventh hour reprieve from European Commission

Farmers Guardian – Tuesday 28th June

The re-licensing of glyphosate has been extended a further 18 months by the European Commission after EU member states failed to come to any agreement on its re-licensing for a longer period of time. The Commission has placed no restrictions on its use despite wide-spread calls for a ban on spraying in parks, gardens and other public places. The Commission has been able to do this because of the failure of member states to reach a clear majority in their decision on whether to allow the continued use of the chemical.

The 18 month extension on glyphosate will be welcomed by farmers, and it further gives time for the Commission to rally evidence to support its case. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) will be developing its own study on the safety of glyphosate, but given that the Agency has recently asserted that glyphosate was not probably carcinogenic to humans, in the face of World Health Organisation (WHO) findings that it was, there is clearly a strong divide in opinion here. While the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have recently acknowledged that the chemical was unlikely to be carcinogenic at the level of dietary exposure, through chemical residue on food, there is still mounting evidence of its dangers as an endocrine disruptor and health impacts from direct exposure where it has been linked to non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. This has left a broad public mistrustful of its safety.

Glyphosate’s proponents are arguing that re-licensing has been ‘politicised’ and that the EU Commission’s decision to extend a short-term license represents a return to science-based decision-making. But on the other side of the argument, MEPs and environmentalist have expressed anger at the Commission for interfering in the democratic process and dismissing public concerns. It has become a true case of the public vs. the power, and it’s still a coin toss over who will win. In the meantime, member states, at least, have a right to regulate or ban the chemical in their own territory.

Hemp is eco-friendly. So why won’t the government let farmers grow it?

The Guardian – Saturday 25th June

Hemp has a long history as a material in the US – the first US flag, sewn by Betsy Ross, was made of hemp. But during the 1930s, hemp became subject to heavy regulation because it comes from the same plant species as marijuana and the two were assumed to be the same thing. Despite, the crop being grown in 30 nations around the globe and hemp products widely used, with a kind of unwarranted stubbornness, the US has continued to list it as a Schedule 1 drug on the Controlled Substances Act. This has meant that anyone wanting to grow hemp has to get approval from the Drugs Enforcement Agency, an obvious deterrent.

However, new legislation could finally change all this, if it passes; and there are many initiatives and companies that want to see this happen. There are many uses of hemp: it is used not just in clothing, but also in cosmetics, food and other products. Hemp is also a far more sustainable crop than cotton – it’s drought tolerant, requires less water and is more productive than cotton. However, it’s been much more expensive, though this could change with the spread of its production that this legislation aims to facilitate.

Patagonia, the green-thinking clothing company, has been supporting the production of American hemp and sustainable hemp production is growing through initiatives like Growing Warriors. There is still a ways to go in building infrastructure for the industry, that would bring prices down, but there is passion in those involved.

Photograph: Neil Barnwell

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