Antibiotic-free meat and poultry are widely available and score high in Consumer Reports survey. (Bigstock)

Many grocery stores offer at least some meat or poultry that is raised without antibiotics, sometimes at prices below what you would expect. But shoppers must become savvy about reading labeling to get products that live up to “no antibiotics administered” and similar claims.

The declining effectiveness of antibiotics has become a national public-health crisis, leading doctors and scientists to call for much more careful use of antibiotics so that disease-causing organisms don’t become immune to them. The Food and Drug Administration is working to have drug companies voluntarily limit the sale of certain antibiotics for use in animal feed because of concerns that overusing them in livestock promotes the development of drug-resistant bacteria that can infect humans.

Approximately 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used by the meat and poultry industry to make animals grow faster or to prevent disease in crowded and unsanitary conditions. However, both supermarkets and consumers can have a major impact on the problem of overused antibiotics through their purchasing decisions.

To determine whether supermarkets are selling products raised without antibiotics and how people feel about them, Consumer Reports polled consumers, contacted companies directly and sent 36 “secret shoppers” into 136 grocery stores in 23 states. The shoppers reported back on more than 1,000 raw meat and poultry products that carried a claim about antibiotics or were labeled as organic.

Just to be clear: These shoppers’ findings represent a snapshot of offerings on the day they visited a particular store in March and April of this year, and the results may not be indicative of products offered on other days or at a chain’s other branches.

What shoppers found

Big differences among retailers. Whole Foods, for example, guarantees that all meat and poultry sold in its stores is never treated with antibiotics. Shoppers also found wide selections of meat and poultry raised without antibiotics at Giant, Hannaford, Shaw’s and Stop & Shop. At the other extreme, shoppers at Sam’s Club, Food 4 Less, Food Lion and Save-A-Lot stores could not find any such meat or poultry.

What the poll found

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a nationally representative telephone survey about antibiotics in meat products in March. Fifty seven percent of consumers indicated they had meat and poultry raised without antibiotics available at their local supermarkets. Also, 61 percent indicated they would pay five cents or more a pound extra for meat and poultry raised without antibiotics, and 37 percent indicated they would pay a dollar a pound or more extra. Eighty-six percent indicated that meat raised without antibiotics should be available in their local supermarket.

The poll of 1,000 U.S. residents (18 and older) had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.

Price data

The data the secret shoppers gathered on the prices of organic and “no antibiotics administered” products at the 119 stores that carried them indicated they can be found at lower prices than you might expect. The least expensive products raised without antibiotics were whole chickens at Publix and Jewel-Osco, and chicken drumsticks at several Trader Joe’s locations, all for $1.29 per pound.

Labeling to look for

Getting the biggest bang for your buck also requires being able to decipher the sometimes confusing array of labeling related to antibiotic use.

Organic. Adherence to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic rules, which prohibit antibiotic use in livestock, must be verified on-site by an independent accredited certifier, so you can have a high level of confidence that any meat or poultry labeled “USDA Organic” comes from animals that have never been given antibiotics.

“No Antibiotics Administered.” Claims of this sort show up on labeling in many variations, such as “No antibiotics added” or “Never ever given antibiotics.” This labeling is helpful, but it provides even more reliability when accompanied by a “USDA Process Verified” shield, which indicates the company paid to have the agency verify the claim. Backing by a private certifier, such as Global Animal Partnership for Whole Foods’ meat, is equally reliable.

Labeling not to rely on

Natural. “Natural” may sound as good as or better than “organic” — and it is a USDA-
approved label. But according to the agency, it means only that the final product contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. Antibiotics might have been used in raising “natural” meat and poultry unless you also see a claim on the labeling indicating that they were not.

Antibiotic-free. The USDA specifically says it never authorizes the use of “antibiotic-free,” so this claim has no clear or consistent meaning in the marketplace and should not appear on packaging.

No antibiotic residues. This is also not a USDA-approved claim. When antibiotics are used in the growing process for cattle, turkey, pigs and chickens, they must be withdrawn for a period of days or weeks prior to slaughter, so that residue levels fall below Food and Drug Administration tolerance thresholds. Technically, meat carrying this labeling could be free of antibiotic residue, despite use of drugs earlier in the animal’s life.

No antibiotic growth promotants. This potentially misleading claim also is not approved by the USDA. Even though an animal may not have been given antibiotics for growth promotion, it still might have received them on a daily basis to prevent disease, which is the main use for the drugs in crowded growing facilities.

Copyright 2012. Consumers Union of United States Inc.