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Some beef ‘raised without antibiotics’ tests positive for antibiotics in study

Naturally raised meat commands a huge financial premium. Consumers may not be getting what they pay for.

Cattle eat hay in a feedlot in La Salle, Utah. (Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
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A new study in Science magazine identified antibiotics in some of the beef cattle in a USDA-approved no-antibiotics labeling program recognized as a gold standard for restaurants and grocery stores around the country.

The study tested some 699 cows at one slaughterhouse that processes “raised without antibiotics” cattle. Most cattle in the study tested negative for antibiotics. However, 10 percent of cattle came from lots where one of the cows sampled tested positive for antibiotics, the researchers found. Additionally, the study found an additional 5 percent of cattle came from lots with multiple positive antibiotic tests.

The study also found that 26 percent of cattle to be labeled in the “Global Animal Partnership” program came from a lot with at least one positive test for antibiotics, according to the study’s supplemental findings. G.A.P. is an animal welfare rating program pioneered and used widely by Whole Foods.

The Science article said the findings call into question the trustworthiness of USDA-approved labeling programs that promise meat is raised without antibiotics (RWA).

“These findings suggest that today’s RWA labels lack integrity,” wrote authors Lance Price, Laura Rogers and Kevin Lo in the piece. Lo is the chief executive for food-testing company Food In-Depth, also known as FoodID, which collected the data at the slaughterhouse.

The USDA is charged with monitoring antibiotic use and verifying specific label claims such as “raised without antibiotics.” A spokesman from the USDA said the agency looks forward to reviewing the study more closely to determine next steps as appropriate, but said that “there is no indication within the study that the meat tested is unsafe to consume.”

Anne Malleau, executive director of the Global Animal Partnership program, and also executive leader of meat and poultry for Whole Foods, said the numbers in the study are “very concerning.” She said that FoodID did share the findings that beef in the Global Animal Partnership label program was testing positive for antibiotics, but FoodID did not share the details of which feedlots and slaughterhouse were being tested.

“It’s not clear what percentage of that is G.A.P., and I’m not saying that it’s not a problem. And it’s something that we’re going to look into now," Malleau said. “It’s hard to ascertain how big the problem is, if it is truly systemic or if we have a few bad apples.”

Malleau added she was disappointed FoodID didn’t share more information about the source of the slaughterhouse being tested.

"They did a seven-month pilot, and they knew that there were people cheating our program, and I wish that we could have had access to that data. This is not something that’s allowed in the program at all,” Malleau said.

Confidentiality agreements prevented FoodID from disclosing the identity of the slaughterhouse or the feedlots supplying it, said FoodID chief marketing officer Scott Levitan.

When asked to comment about the study’s findings of beef slated for the G.A.P. label testing positive for antibiotics, Whole Foods Principal Sustainability Advisor Spencer Taylor said the company remains committed to its promise of no antibiotics, ever, in its beef.

“We have extensively reviewed the information made available to us and have no reason to believe that the cattle tested in this study ended up in products in our stores. We take compliance very seriously and never hesitate to act if a supplier has failed to meet our rigorous quality standards," Taylor said.

The study raises new questions about the rigor of USDA’s oversight of programs intended to protect people from consuming unneeded antibiotics.

The USDA designation of “raised without antibiotics” can only go to producers that sign an affidavit and submit documentation that supports their claims of being antibiotic free. To verify labels are truthful, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service verifies documentation provided with label applications, according to the USDA spokesman. The USDA can take away the label if there is evidence that claims are not truthful.

However, Lo of FoodID said that the study is indicative of broader problems. He said consumers believe the antibiotic-free meat industry is “trust, but verify,” but that it’s actually more “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

"Our perspective is the research and the paper highlight a systemic issue — it’s not about one farmer, rancher, retailer or restaurant chain,” he said.

Lo also said that the USDA label grants credibility and value to products in the marketplace and that restaurants and retailers don’t have an incentive to look too hard. Lo said FoodID shared its work with the USDA as well as their concerns about the agency’s affidavit-based system.

“The USDA’s oversight is laissez faire. They test such a small fraction it can’t even be taken seriously,” co-author Price said. “And they rotate the drugs they are testing for, because they can’t afford to test for all of them. They just don’t have the funds to do it. We raise 9 billion animals, and they test hundreds of cattle, not even thousands.”

For example, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service tested 754 head of beef cattle in 2019, testing for “maximum residue limits,” using detection limits that focus more on levels that present immediate danger to human health. The antibiotics found in the lots at the slaughterhouse facility in the study were not considered at levels harmful to human health in isolation, but many health experts worry about repeat and protracted exposure.

The most commonly detected antibiotic that FoodID found in the cattle that tested positive was tetracycline, detected in the urine post slaughter, according to the study’s supplemental material. For that antibiotic to be detected, it suggests the antibiotic had recently been administered, before the cattle was moved to the slaughterhouse, at the feedlot, said Gail Hansen, a veterinarian unrelated to the study and consultant on public health and infectious diseases issues. “And if an animal is supposedly raised without antibiotics, it should never have been administered antibiotics,” Hansen said.

In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of antibiotics that are administered to make animals grow quicker, but it still happens, experts say. Producers can make more money if an animal is “feed efficient,” meaning the animal gains weight faster than others when eating a particular ration of food. As steroids do for humans, antibiotics such as tetracycline can bulk some animals up more quickly.

A premium is paid at every step of the “raised without antibiotics” beef supply chain, according to Science magazine. The rancher gets about $38 more per head of cattle; the premium the feedlot gets is $140 per animal; the meat company gets $413 more per head of cattle; what the retailer gets varies, but could be as high as $2,700 more for the meat from that animal (that’s more than 70 times the rancher’s premium). Each supplier segment has a financial incentive to avoid rigorous testing for antibiotics, but especially those making the most money.

Americans are increasingly willing to pay more to know the foods they eat contain certain beneficial nutrients and ingredients. But in many cases, they will pay an even greater premium to ensure the foods they buy are free of things they don’t want. Restaurants, supermarkets and food companies are paying attention, offering bold and specific commitments about their meat and poultry.

“Even as we enter a more cash-strapped inflationary period, we’re seeing that volume for antibiotic-free beef is actually up 13 percent in the latest four weeks ending March 20, whereas beef overall has declined 6 percent,” said Kate Allmandinger, a consultant for IRI, a market research firm. "While buyers are up across generations for antibiotic-free beef, we’re seeing that younger generations are really getting behind this growth as their spending power is increasing.”

Additionally, the use of antibiotics isn’t great for human health, because it leads to bacteria becoming more resistant to antibiotics designed to kill them, said Price. Antibiotic resistance leads to higher medical costs for humans, prolonged hospital stays and increased numbers of deaths.

A 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause 2.8 million infections and 35,000 deaths annually in the United States. Sales of antibiotics for use in cattle fell in 2016 and 2017, but those sales have leveled off in more recent years, according to FDA data.

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