CHICAGO — Antibiotic-free meat is more than just a
controversial marketing slogan. It’s the law of the land.
“The FDA has very strict guidelines and with USDA on
inspection about residues in the meat. There can be no antibiotics or antibiotic
metabolite in the meat or milk that is consumed by people and that is a law in
his country. It’s in our food regulations and our food laws,” said Randy Singer,
a veterinarian and associate professor of infectious disease epidemiology and
ecology at the University of Minnesota.
He was one of three panelists for a journalist luncheon and
media briefing hosted at the Capital Grille in Chicago by the International Food
Information Council Foundation. The briefing was titled “Antibiotics in Food
Producing Animals: Who’s At Risk? Who Benefits?”
Singer was joined on the panel by Will Gilmer, an Alabama
dairy farmer and social media presence who also is one of the Faces of Farming
and Ranching of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, and Keith Ayoob,
associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of
Medicine in New York City.
The goal of the briefing was to provide journalists of
various backgrounds information from three different perspectives and to get
The briefing was born from the results of an annual consumer
survey, the Food and Health Survey.
“We look at nutrition issues, but we also look at food
safety issues. We track the confidence in the U.S. food supply by consumers,”
said Marianne Smith Edge, vice president for nutrition and food safety for the
“Even though the majority are still very confident, well
over 70 percent, this was the first year that we saw a significant decline, more
people basically saying that they at least have a little concern about the
safety of the food,” said Smith Edge, in her remarks to welcome the guests to
“When we asked over the years what are you most concerned
about and, obviously, microbial is still most important, but we have seen
tracking in chemicals in food. We never know exactly what folks mean by that
when we look at food and health, but (concerns about) antibiotics in food
definitely has increased. Thirty two percent this year said they at least have
some concern about antibiotics in food,” Smith Edge said.
She said that while IFIC is funded by the agriculture, food
and beverage industries, the organization’s goal is to bring science to groups
such as consumers, health professionals, government and the media.
Matt Raymond, senior director of media relations, asked
Singer to talk about antibiotic resistance and how much the use of drugs in
animal agriculture contributes to resistance in humans.
“All uses of antibiotics have the potential to both create
and aid the dissemination of resistance — we just don’t have a really good
handle on the frequency with which that happens,” Singer said.
He noted that antibiotics have been used in animal
agriculture for six decades. He attributed much of the resistance that has
developed to use in humans.
“Once an antibiotic becomes commonly used in human medicine,
you see this emergence of resistance. It’s hard to attribute at least a
majority, a significant chunk, of that resistance to animal agriculture,” he
Singer clarified that there are four approved labels for
antibiotic use in animal agriculture that include the growth promotion/feed
efficiency label, the disease prevention label, disease control and disease
The growth promotion/feed efficiency label is probably the
most misunderstood, Singer said. He said researchers have come to understand
that those work much like probiotics work in humans, by keeping the animal’s gut
healthy and functioning and thus keeping the animal healthier.
“That label is probably one that is misunderstood about how
it acts, but we’re going to be phasing it out,” he said.
Singer said he does not want to see government step into the
role of scientists and researchers.
“I appreciate that FDA wants to regulate that. What I don’t
want to see is politicians making that decision and we legislate a ban,” he
Singer also pointed out that the unintended consequences are
yet to be fully understood of ending the use of those supplements.
“Agriculture will be given a couple years to adapt to this
change because there will be unintended consequences of removing that growth
promotion label,” he said.
Singer said one reason for the misunderstanding about what
role antibiotics in animal agriculture play in human resistance is due to how
media cover the issue.
“The trouble that we often have to face is it’s easy to grab
a headline when you say something like superbugs are in your meat and it’s due
to the use of antibiotics on farms. It’s really hard to have a message that says
farmers are doing it right and they work with veterinarians to make a healthier
food supply. There’s no story,” he said.
Singer noted that FDA directives #309 and #213 are the
documents that outline how the elimination of the growth promotion label will be
He added that the additional oversight doesn’t mean that all
antibiotics will be restricted from use in livestock.
“One way you treat a herd of animals, a flock of chickens,
is through administering the antibiotic in the water or the feed because it’s
how you can administer it to an entire group of animals,” he said.
Singer added that the process that is in place to oversee
and maintain food safety and prevent foodborne illnesses also extends to the
presence of antibiotics in the food supply.
“The FDA has very strict guidelines and with USDA on
inspection about residues in the meat. When we apply an antibiotic to an animal,
you have to wait a period of time before that animal enters the food supply and
into commerce,” he said.
Singer also pointed out that he doesn’t believe animals
treated with antibiotics pose any more threat to humans than those untreated
“Is there an enhanced risk because that animal was treated
with an antibiotic? I don’t believe so. I can look through the literature and
find numerous examples where the antibiotic-resistant bacteria or just bacteria
in general are actually at a higher level in animals that are raised in an
antibiotic-free and organic environment versus animals raised in a conventional
setting,” he said. “We need to differentiate the potential risks.”