Antibiotic use in food animal production was a topic front and center in social media circles this week as a report card graded the top restaurants in America on their policies toward restricting the use of antibiotics in meat production. All but five of the 25 restaurants analyzed received a failing grade.
Much like Top Ten Lists, an industry grading system such as this seems to be popular with a wide variety of media sites. Articles and links to the report were ubiquitous on the most-linked to URLs and most retweeted tweets lists in the Signals social media monitoring system, as evidenced in the frequent appearance of the terms antibiotics, meat, and restaurant in the word cloud below.
In distributing the report, the groups contend antibiotics use in livestock and poultry is contributing significantly to the issue of antibiotic resistance in America and implore meat and poultry suppliers to eliminate the routine use of antibiotics in agriculture.
The groups that collaborated on the report attempted to survey the top 25 fast food and fast casual restaurants in the U.S. Only one-third of the restaurants provided written responses, meaning grades by and large were based on information gleaned from company websites. The only two “A” grades went to restaurants serving meat primarily from antibiotic-free systems.
In promoting its coverage of the report, @CBSNews (3.9 million Twitter followers) tweeted, “Are there antibiotics in the meat at your favorite fast food restaurant?” It’s a reflection of the confusion surrounding the issue of antibiotics used in agriculture. The short answer to CBS News’ question is, “No.”
Some groups, intentionally or not, erroneously promote the notion that when people eat meat they are also consuming antibiotics that were used to treat the animals. Often, they fail to mention the multiple systems and strict government regulations in place to ensure the meat that reaches consumers is safe. Producers must adhere to specific withdrawal times that have been established to ensure that meat entering the food supply is safe. The Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and food companies routinely sample meat for antibiotic residue.
The point is well made by a blogger known as The Farmer’s Daughter USA, a lawyer who grew up on a southwest Michigan farm. In a blog on the subject this week, she says, “The biggest media mistake here is the confusing and misleading headlines suggesting that there are antibiotic residues present in our meat supply. This is simply false.”
Most restaurant and retail purchasing policies in the U.S. today recognize the need for antibiotics in the interest of animal well-being. The American Veterinary Medical Association testified before Congress that antibiotics are one of the most important tools that veterinarians use to protect both human health and animal health.
Antibiotic resistance is a legitimate public health concern that everyone in the food system needs to take seriously. Leading drug companies have recognized the concern about the issue and are making antibiotics available only for treatment and prevention of disease – not growth promotion. In the future, antibiotics important to human medicine will only be available under a Veterinary Feed Directive, essentially a prescription from a veterinarian.
Animal antibiotics must be used responsibly to minimize agriculture’s contribution to antibiotic resistance. But preventing disease and treating sick animals through the responsible use of antibiotics is the ethical thing to do. The responsible use of antibiotics by doctors and patients as well as veterinarians and food producers helps reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance.
Consumers in the U.S. have an amazing array of options in the meat they purchase. Choosing to consume meat from antibiotic-free systems is among those options. But it’s just one of many ways to produce safe, nutritious food.