Consumers Demand And Get More Choices When Buying Antibiotics-Free Meat
Brandon Glenn had already gone further. Not at the behest of the government, but of a meat company for which he raises chickens.
“I was pretty apprehensive,” the Kentucky farmer says of instructions three years ago from Perdue Farms Inc. to halt almost all antibiotic use. “How are we going to keep these chickens alive without giving them their medication? But Perdue said: ‘This is what the market is going to.’ ”
Perdue is among a growing array of food producers moving to limit the routine use of antibiotics in livestock production—less in response to regulatory action than to consumer pressure.
Antibiotic-free beef, pork and chicken account for only around 5% of meat sold in the U.S., by industry estimates, but its share is growing quickly. Sales of such chicken at U.S. retailers rose 34% by value last year, according to market-research firm IRI.
Prices at the supermarket for these products are much higher, rewarding producers for higher production costs, but also imposing an affordability limit on the market.
Meat producers’ growing embrace of the niche draws praise from health advocates worried about a rise in some types of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. They regard the commercial moves as a breakthrough after years of tentative actions by regulators.
“We are seeing companies come to the table because of public pressure in a way they haven’t before,” says Susan Vaughn Grooters, a policy analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of health, animal-welfare and environmental groups. She says that the FDA is “being outpaced by the microbes themselves and by the industry.”
The FDA views its approach of seeking voluntary changes as the most effective way to reduce antibiotic use in animals, arguing that a ban could tie it up in lengthy legal proceedings.
More than two million Americans a year develop bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics, which kill at least 23,000 annually, according to a report last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The concern is that herds or flocks raised in close confinement and dosed repeatedly with antibiotics create millions of living petri dishes in which harmful bacteria have a chance to mutate to evade the drugs. The bacteria then could be passed to humans if meat wasn’t cooked fully or if traces of manure used to fertilize crops remained on produce.
“It is clear that agricultural use of antibiotics can affect human health,” the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said in September as the White House was unveiling measures to combat the spread of drug-resistant bacteria.
“What is less clear,” the report added, is the farm sector’s relative contribution to the problem, compared with misuse and overuse of antibiotics in human health care.
At the Animal Health Institute, a trade group for makers of veterinary drugs, Richard Carnevale, vice president for regulatory, scientific and international affairs, is doubtful that livestock antibiotics contribute significantly to resistance problems. Dr. Carnevale says the rise of bacteria resistant to antibiotics doesn’t coordinate closely with how heavily those particular antibiotics are used on the farm.
Many consumers have made up their minds. Consumer Reports, in a 2012 survey, found 72% of people were extremely or very concerned about widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed. This year, research firm Midan Marketing surveyed grocery shoppers and found 88% aware of antibiotic use in animals and 60% concerned about it.
Diana Goodpasture knew nothing about the issue when she became sick in 2011. She says she was diagnosed with a strain of salmonella resistant to antibiotics, after eating ground turkey that was part of a Cargill recall for possible contamination.
A Cargill spokesman declined to discuss her case but said the company has made improvements to the plant where the recalled turkey was processed and installed a meat-testing program to better detect any salmonella.
The FDA approved antibiotic use to stimulate livestock growth in the 1950s, after animal-health researchers found that animals receiving small, regular doses of the bacteria-killers seemed to grow more quickly. The reasons aren’t fully understood, but many scientists think the drugs improve nutrient absorption.
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About 60% of antibiotic types used on livestock are also used in humans.
Scientists raised concerns many years ago that adding antibiotics to livestock feed could spur drug resistance. Meat and animal-health companies lobbied Congress and the FDA to keep the uses in animals approved. Few restrictions have been imposed, although Congress in 2008 required drug makers to report sales of antibiotics for livestock.
Recommendations the FDA made late last year, although left voluntary, were among the furthest-reaching actions it has taken on the issue. It asked producers of veterinary antibiotics to revise labels to make it effectively illegal for farmers and ranchers to administer the drugs for the purpose of promoting growth. The FDA says all 26 companies that make such drugs have agreed to phase them out for growth promotion by December 2016.
Critics including Robert Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, say the guidelines may have little impact. Among the reasons: The rules still allow putting antibiotics in feed if the purpose is disease prevention—a vague test that could enable meat producers to continue using them widely if they get a veterinarian’s permission.
Iowa hog farmer Howard Hill, who is also a veterinarian, says he long ago stopped using antibiotics for growth acceleration but will continue giving them to pigs aged three to six weeks to prevent sickness during their shift to a solid diet from mother’s milk. “We know if we can keep the animals healthier and not let them get disease, in the long run we’ll produce a healthier, safer product,” says Dr. Hill, who is president of the National Pork Producers Council.
Once, it set out to ban an antibiotic in poultry after concluding that its use promoted bacteria resistant to drugs given to humans. One manufacturer fought the move in court. The FDA wasn’t able to get the poultry antibiotic—which was in the same class as the human antibiotic Cipro—off the market until five years later, says Bill Flynn, an official at the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.
Raising chickens without antibiotics will always be more expensive because of the need to cover the cost of those that get sick, says Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer of Sanderson Farms Inc., the third-largest U.S. poultry processor by sales volume. He says Sanderson hasn’t ruled out antibiotic-free chicken production but so far hasn’t seen enough demand to invest in it.
Some early adopters have greatly expanded their businesses since switching to antibiotic-free products, including restaurant chains Panera Bread Co. , which did so for some menu items in 2004, and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., which began doing so in 1999.
Chick-fil-A’s announcement about nine months ago that it will phase out chicken raised with antibiotics made it one of the largest restaurant chains to make such a pledge. One influence was a food blogger named Vani Hari. In 2011, she began chastising the chain on her website, FoodBabe.com, because its sandwiches contained dozens of ingredients. She dubbed it “Chemical-fil-A.”
The company invited her to its Atlanta headquarters, where one day two years ago she discussed her concerns. On a white board, she listed changes she thought the chain should make, with her priority eliminating antibiotic-fed chickens.
At the time, says David Farmer, Chick-fil-A vice president of product strategy, the company considered any shift to antibiotic-free chicken something “that was down the road.” But a few months later, polling of customers showed 70% said antibiotics use mattered to them. That prompted executives to take a serious look.
Perdue first began reducing antibiotics a dozen years ago. The private Salisbury, Md., company—founded in 1920 by Arthur Perdue and led today by grandson Jim Perdue —says it hasn’t let its chicken raisers use antibiotics for the purpose of speeding growth since 2007.
That year, it rolled out Harvestland, a brand produced without antibiotics used for any purpose. Perdue has eliminated antibiotics use entirely in 35% of the chicken it sells, it says. Executives say they made the moves because microbial resistance was gaining more attention and they kept getting questions from consumers about it.
Mr. Glenn, the Kentucky farmer, says not long after he converted to antibiotic-free production, a respiratory illness wiped out as much as 2.5% of his flock. “It was trial and error for us, and for Perdue,” he says.
Mr. Glenn, 34 years old, raises about 160,000 chickens in six climate-controlled buildings, each nearly the length of two football fields. He has gone from a skeptic about curbing antibiotics to an enthusiast.
The first time he saw one of the antibiotic-free birds raised on his family’s farm at a grocery store—with his father’s name, Wayne Glenn, on the packaging—he bought one, snapped a photo and posted it on Facebook .
“Everyone wants a healthier lifestyle,” he says. “That is basically what it boils down to.”
McDonald’s Won’t Buy Simplot’s GMO Potato
BOISE, Idaho--The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co.’s new genetically modified potato. But one of the company’s oldest business partners-- McDonald’s --hasn’t.
The fast-food giant says it doesn’t use genetically modified potatoes, the Idaho Statesman reported.
“McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices,” the company said in a statement.
The USDA this month gave Boise-based Simplot permission to begin commercial planting of its new spud, called the “Innate” potato. The company altered the potato’s DNA so it produces less acrylamide, which is suspected to be a human carcinogen. Potatoes naturally produce the chemical when they’re cooked at high temperatures.
The potato is also engineered to resist bruising.
Simplot is a major supplier of french fries, hash browns and other potato products for restaurant chains, such as McDonald’s.
This isn’t the first time the fast-food industry has resisted GMO potatoes. More than a decade ago, Monsanto brought its bug-resistant “New Leaf” line of genetically modified potato to market. Buyers, led by the fast-food industry, rejected the Monsanto spud, and it was pulled from production because of lack of business.
Simplot spokesman Doug Cole didn’t address the company’s plans to sell to the fast-food industry or the dehydrated potato industry, which both have urged growers against planting GMO potatoes. But Cole said the fresh potato market would embrace Innate.
Consumers will be receptive to the reduced sugars and potential carcinogens, Cole said. Because only 400 test acres of Innate varieties were planted and harvested this fall, production can’t ramp up until after the 2015 harvest, he said.
Rupert potato grower Duane Grant said he’s been told by buyers in the dehydrated potato industry not to plant the GMO potatoes. But he hopes to line up willing buyers so that he can plant the biotech potatoes and reap the higher yields that come with their reduced bruising, he said.
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