October 12, 2022 — Three-quarters of the largest grocery chains in the United States are failing to limit the use of antibiotics in their private label fresh meat, contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistance.
That’s according to a new report, “Superbugs in Stock,” produced by members of a coalition of public health, animal welfare and consumer groups known as Antibiotics Off the Menu. Of the nation’s major food retailers, Target fared the best, but even though it only received a C grade.
About half of the fresh meat sold in this country is purchased from stores.
“This means the grocery industry has a potentially major impact on how antibiotics are used in meat production,” says Matthew Wellington, director of public health campaigns at coalition member US PIRG. “This report shows an urgent need for more progress in the grocery sector.”
A newsletter for supermarkets
For 6 years, the coalition has focused on restaurants, with an annual report on the practices of major fast and casual restaurant chains. Following these reports, several chains announced changes to their policies, but not all followed suit.
“We’ve seen progress with restaurant chains, so we wanted to look at the other place where people get most of their food,” says Steven Roach of the Food Animal Concerns Trust, lead author of the report. “And after the pandemic, where there had been a shift from people eating out to eating at home, we thought it was time to look at grocery chains.”
Roach and his co-authors gathered information about supermarket chains’ policies on antibiotic use in private label chicken, turkey, pork, and beef through a survey as well as sites company websites and published documents. They awarded points for various scoring criteria – things like having a meaningful and transparent public policy related to animal welfare, enforcement of that policy, and use of third-party verification.
Their conclusions do not really inspire confidence. Of the dozen major grocery retailers in the United States, eight received an F rating, with 10 points or less out of a possible 100. This group includes Kroger, Walmart and Albertsons, three of the five highest-earning grocers in the United States. of failing companies sell private label meat labeled “raised without antibiotics,” none have strong policies to cover their entire line of private label fresh meat.
Target scored the highest, with 56 points and a C grade. The company has a policy for each species of animal products and links that policy to animal welfare. But it’s unclear how much of their meat currently meets the policy. Ahold Delhaize, parent company of supermarkets like Stop & Shop, Food Lion and Giant, came second with 34 points and a C-. They too have publicly available policies for each species of animal product and stumble when it comes to tracking. Meijer and Costco each received a D grade because, although they ban the routine use of antibiotics in their private label chicken and tie the policy to animal welfare, they do little else.
WebMD reached out to all 12 grocers for comment and only heard from three. Walmart released its position on antibiotics and ALDI highlighted its antibiotic-free chicken products. Ahold Delhaize responded but would not comment without first seeing the report, which was embargoed for today.
Outside of the top 12, some smaller channels are doing better. The report cites Whole Foods, Mom’s Organic Market and Natural Grocers as three chains already limiting the use of antibiotics. Whole Foods has opted for a “no antibiotics” policy for private label products, while the other two prohibit the widespread use of antibiotics for disease prevention. Here, too, questions arise about monitoring and verification programs.
Why the use of antibiotics is important
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria and fungi change in response to the use of antibiotics, rendering these drugs powerless against germs. This increases the risk of dangerous or even fatal infections. According to CDC estimates, each year more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the United States and more than 35,000 people die from them. The World Health Organization ranks antibiotic resistance among “the greatest threats to global health, food security and development today”.
The more antibiotics are used, the more likely resistance becomes. And large-scale cattle ranchers use a lot of antibiotics, many of which are also used by humans, known as medically important antibiotics. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 44% more of these drugs are for animals than for humans. In many cases, they are used for general disease prevention rather than treatment.
“Antibiotics should be used to treat sick animals,” Wellington says. “But they should not be used to prevent disease caused by unsanitary, crowded and stressful living conditions for animals.”
The FDA has taken steps to reduce the widespread use of medically important antibiotics in food animal production, implementing new guidelines in 2017. Although sales of these animal drugs have declined since their peak in 2015, they seem to have reached a plateau.
The news is not all bad on this front. From 2016 to 2020, sales of medically important antibiotics for use with chickens fell by 72%. Thanks to consumer demand, more than half of all chickens raised in the United States now receive no antibiotics, and only 1% receive medically important antibiotics.
“Grocery stores are the main way consumers get information about meat products,” Wellington says. “So if grocery stores would step in and say, ‘We won’t buy meat raised with excessive use of antibiotics for our private label products’, that would not only help change the meat industry, it would help also to educate consumers about it. publish.”
Attract attention and call to action
The coalition’s report aims to shed light on the effects of the widespread use of antibiotics in the production of food animals on human health.
“We’re not worried about antibiotics in the meat you eat,” Roach says. “We worry about hard-to-treat bacteria that come from overuse of antibiotics.”
Of the six recommendations for grocery chains in the report:
- Commit to phasing out the routine use of antibiotics for the prevention of diseases, especially those that are medically important.
- Improve data collection and transparency on how and why antibiotics are used.
- Use third-party monitors to check the progress of supply farms.
Consumers also have a role to play.
“Vote with your wallet – buy meat raised without antibiotics,” Wellington says. “It will stimulate more producers. And call on your grocery stores to implement a strong private label policy. »
When buying meat, look for verified animal welfare standards, such as seals that say “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Certified Humane,” or “Global Animal Partnership Certified.” The report warns against relying on ‘One Health Certified’ labels – this is a scheme developed by the meat companies themselves, reflecting existing factory farming standards. Antibiotics can still be used routinely.
The report also includes recommendations for meat producers, federal and local regulators and policymakers, investors, and institutional buyers of meat.
“It takes effort to make these changes, but we know it’s possible and worth the effort. We’re talking about preserving life-saving drugs,” Wellington says. “We can’t afford to waste those drugs to produce a slightly cheaper burger or pork chop.”