Home Finance Your family’s meat might not be antibiotic-free, despite what it says on the label

Your family’s meat might not be antibiotic-free, despite what it says on the label

by CoinNews

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is cracking down on misleading meat labels.

The USDA says it will collect samples from animals that will be marketed to consumers as “raised without antibiotics” or meat labeled “no antibiotics ever” to make sure the marketing claims and labels are accurate.

The outcome of these tests will help the USDA decide whether lab-testing results should be part of the required documents to support claims made by farmers and food suppliers. The department plans to “strongly encourage” the use of third-party certification to back up marketing claims.

Labels such as “grass-fed” and “free-range” are voluntary marketing claims that consumers have increasingly turned to in recent years because of sustainability and ethics concerns, food-industry experts say.

“These claims must be approved by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) before they can be included on the labels of meat and poultry products sold to consumers,” it added. The FSIS last updated its guidelines on these claims in 2019. Since then, the FSIS has received comments and letters asking the agency to reevaluate how it oversees marketing claims, and the “veracity of ‘negative’ antibiotics claims (e.g., ‘raised without antibiotics’ or ‘no antibiotics ever’) has come into question,” the USDA said.

Can you trust the label on your meat products? The answer appears to be most, but perhaps not all, of the time. Research published in the peer-reviewed journal Science last year found that up to 42% of “raised without antibiotics” cattle-slaughter facilities had at least one animal that tested positive for antibiotics. Researchers from George Washington University tested almost 700 cattle from 312 lots and 33 different “raised without antibiotics” facilities.

“People ask me all the time what they can do to prevent the overuse of antibiotics in meat production,” said  Lance B. Price, founder and co-director of George Washington University’s Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, and co-author of the report, said when it was released last year.

“For years, I’ve been telling them to buy products labeled ‘raised without antibiotics,’” he added. “I’m disappointed to see that these promises aren’t always true. The good news is that the majority of producers appear to be doing it right.”

“Consumers should be able to trust that the label claims they see on products bearing the USDA mark of inspection are truthful and accurate,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement this week. 

(The American Association of Meat Processors, a trade industry group, was not immediately available for comment.)

The Food and Drug Administration has approved antibiotic use for animals in limited scenarios, to help treat, prevent and control bacterial diseases. While antibiotics can be valuable for reducing animal disease or bacterial infection, once they are overused, they can also lead to antibiotic resistance in humans and pass on antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Do consumers care about such meat labels? The general public appears split on the subject. More than one-third of consumers frequently buy meat with a “no antibiotics” claim, according to a Consumer Reports survey in 2019.

At the moment, producers need to submit documents to the USDA to substantiate their labeling claims, but the department is not required to inspect each of them. Only labels with a “USDA Process Verified” seal received visits from USDA inspectors. 

Members of the public find the “no antibiotics” labels confusing because they come in different forms, the USDA added. Aside from the “raised without antibiotics” label, other labels on the market also mention “no critically important antibiotics” and “no growth-promoting antibiotics.” In other words, not all of the labels mean “no antibiotics,” Consumer Reports concluded.

A group of Democratic senators — Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Sheldon Whitehouse — sent a letter in March to the USDA, urging the government to toughen rules after an Animal Welfare Institute report highlighted more than 100 animal-raising claims that lacked evidence.

The Animal Welfare Institute report said more labels — beyond those relating to “antibiotic-free” meat — also require review. “The USDA is allowing the use of high-value claims such as ‘humanely raised’ even when the animals are raised under conventional industry conditions,” the report said. 

“To meet consumer expectations, producers should be required to obtain third-party certification confirming that they provide a standard of care exceeding that of conventional industry production practices,” it added. “Producers should be required to comply with 100% of the certification standards and be audited at least every 15 months to ensure that they remain in compliance with the standards.”

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