Consumers are getting impatient with restaurants and retailers for dragging their feet on ridding their meat of antibiotics used in humans. In the past four years, a steady stream of well-known restaurant and grocery chains have pledged to get antibiotics out of their meat.
Last month, a group of 30 consumer and environmental groups sent a letter to In-N-Out Burger, a California quick-serve burger chain, requesting that they stop serving beef raised with routine antibiotics. This comes after a similar letter sent last year prompted In-N-Out to state that they are “committed to beef that is not raised with antibiotics important to human medicine.” The chain further pledged to work with their suppliers to find new solutions. But a year later, consumers and environmentalists are still unsatisfied.
The reasoning is clear and urgent for those who believe in the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. “Some 700,000 people per year die of drug-resistant infections,” said Mary McKenna, author of the forthcoming book “Big Chicken; The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats,” and speaker at the recent Reducetarian Summit in New York City. MacKenna was at the event advocating that less meat consumption would decrease demand pressure and potentially decrease the “need for speed” in antibiotic use reduction.
“Most of the animals raised for meat on this planet receive antibiotics on most days of their lives and this a practice that goes back to the 1950s,” said McKenna. The practice began because antibiotics promote growth animals, making them fatter and therefore more valuable; antibiotics were subsequently used as a disease preventative.
In her 2015 TED Talk on the subject, McKenna urged that it’s not too late to “slow down the arrival of the post-antibiotic world.” McKenna laid out a series of possible mitigation strategies including elaborate tracking systems for both antibiotic use and resistance in humans. But essential in her view, is a complete stop to routine antibiotic use in livestock.
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Policies and goals
The USDA has made attempts to curb antibiotic use for the purpose of growth promotion in the form of voluntary guidelines in 2013, but it has not made an effort to limit routine antibiotic regimes for disease prevention.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tightened regulations as well over the last three years, requesting in that pharmaceutical companies remove growth promotion indications from their “medically significant” antibiotic labels and requiring veterinary approval to use the drugs as a preventative measure.
With seemingly half of restaurant commercials on television making a claim around the antibiotic-status of their meat, it begs the question, how far has the food system really moved?
US states leading the charge are Maryland and California. Maryland passed a ban on the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry in April and enforcement begins January 1, 2018. The state is the ninth-largest producer of broiler chickens in the US and has healthy cattle and hog industries as well.
California’s anti-antibiotics law has been on the books since October 2015. It not only banned non-therapeutic administration of antibiotics in livestock but also required a veterinarian prescription to administer the drugs in the case of disease. This law also takes effect in January.
Though these statewide efforts mark major successes for consumer and professional advocates, they affect less than 2% of the broiler chickens the US produces, according to statistics from the National Chicken Council.
The US’s biggest food players have also made varying degrees of progress toward ending routine antibiotic use, with many new initiatives within the last year:
- Kentucky Fried Chicken announced in April that it would discontinue purchasing chicken treated with antibiotics used in humans by 2018.
- Perdue, which is headquartered on Maryland’s Eastern shore, announced that it had stopped administering non-therapeutic antibiotics in their birds.
- Cargill vowed to reduce its preventative antibiotic us in cattle by 20% in 2016 and is making various changes in animal feed and veterinary practices to decrease the necessity of therapeutic antibiotics in livestock.
- Tyson Foods announced in February that it would cease using antibiotics on its birds this month.
- Costco has said that it is committed to decreasing antibiotics in the meat it sells, announcing in 2016 that it was starting its own chicken farm large enough to fulfill 25% of the retailer’s chicken needs nationwide. (Though the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) did just give Costco a grade of “D” for their efforts to reduce antibiotics in chicken.)
- MacDonalds transitioned to chickens raised without medically-relevant antibiotics in 2016. A shareholder proposal to do the same regarding beef and pork failed at the May shareholder meeting.
- Subway pledged in 2015 to be antibiotic-free by 2025 and debuted its first compliant chicken sandwich in February.
- Walmart issued voluntary requests for its suppliers to stop using non-therapeutic antibiotics in 2015 and though it has said suppliers are responding, the NRDC gave the retailer a D grade for its efforts.
McKenna chalks these efforts entirely up to consumers. “We are where we are with antibiotic use reduction in the American meat industry simply because of consumer pressure,” said McKenna.
The rise of antibiotic replacements
A handful of startups and a few more established players are making a move to replace non-medical antibiotics in livestock.
Pure Cultures is a custom probiotics early-stage start-up, which has a probiotic product on the market that they claim has “the same anti-pathogen properties as antibiotics.” After receiving seed funding from biotech accelerator Indie Bio in 2016, they claim to have a partnership with the “largest food company in the world” — for legal reasons they will not specify the name — as well as $500,000 in revenue booked for 2017.
“Today, the objective isn’t to replace antibiotics in livestock, but to reduce the overuse,” said Pure Cultures co-founder Colleen Kazemi.
Agroflux, a Dutch company producing seaweed-based supplements for livestock, claims to get the milk production and growth-promoting effects of antibiotics in livestock without the unwanted knock-on effects.
Avivagen, listed on the Canadian Venture Exchange (CVE) since 2004, has a patented product called OXC-Beta, which they claim increases feed efficiency and weight gain, meaning the cattle gain more weight while eating less.
What’s the timeline?
After four years in the business, Kazemi says that major reductions in antibiotic use are not going to happen overnight.
“The reduction in the use of antibiotics in livestock is going to take time… We have found that the sales cycle can be long. However, we need to be patient and develop relationships, perform field trials and prove our science. We are also working on government and university partnerships to accelerate adoption.”
For big farmers, these are big decisions, says Kazemi: “Due to the fact that our product has to fit into a farmer’s nutritional regime, it is important that we work with the farm’s nutritionist to optimize the delivery and timeline. Often times the nutritionist has several priorities on their plate so we have to find the right time to insert our solution.”
Plus, there is some earned skepticism from farmers. “Farmers are pitched frequently on new products that make claims of increasing the performance of their flock or herd. As a result, they are cautious in moving forward with any new product.” She says probiotics have gotten a bad wrap over the years for being ineffective. Pure Cultures claims to mitigate this issue with a proprietary processing method that keeps the product stable and effective.
“We are currently funding research and product development through strategic partnerships and recurring revenue. Sales, science and product development are our key priorities right now and we will likely focus on growth funding next.”
With all these examples, meat raised without routine antibiotics may seem ubiquitous, but the NRDC estimates that it makes up just 5% of US meat sold. And startups focusing on creating alternatives are still few and far between.
American activist voices are going to have to keep up the volume in order to keep their cause to get rid of routine antibiotics in meat moving. At last month’s G20 meeting, several European health ministers pledged to have a plan to fight antibiotic resistance by 2018.
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