(CN) — A paper published Thursday in the journal Science shows that 15% of cattle classified as raised-without-antibiotics at a slaughter facility actually had antibiotics in their system.
This means that customers who purchase these meats are, at least part of the time, getting ripped off. And there is the potential for negative public health effects too.
“People spend a lot of money on these products. It’s a substantial markup. And 15% of the time, according to our study, they are not getting what they paid for,” said Lance B. Price, founder and co-director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University, and one of three authors of the paper.
The solution, argues Price, is for the United States Department of Agriculture to establish “a rigorous verification system” to ensure that raised-without-antibiotics labels are accurate.
“The USDA has sole authority to deem a meat label in the United States truthful and accurate,” Price said. “It is on them to ensure that these labels are truthful. It would be an easy thing to solve.”
According to the medical website Healthline, producers have been giving animals antibiotics since the 1940s for infections and to halt the spread of disease. Low doses of antibiotics can also promote growth, leading to more production.
Customers of raised-without-antibiotics meat — and Price is one of them — buy and consume it for two primary reasons: Their own health and for the health of everyone else. When a producer gives an animal an antibiotic, it spurs the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria. And these bacteria can be passed on to the consumer.
There are 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections in the United States each year, leading to the deaths of more than 35,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The World Health Organization, the CDC, these different organizations have been clear that antibiotic resistance is a major public-health crisis,” Price said.
The study stared with Food In-Depth, a scientific food testing/food transparency company, amid rumors of loose practices in beef production. Food ID tested at a slaughter facility to get an idea of the size of the problem.
The authors do not identify the facility.
“There are multiple nondisclosure agreements in place,” Price said. “Plus, we don’t want to get lost in finger-pointing to companies at this point.”
A member of the Food ID team set up at the facility with the goal of testing two raised-without-antibiotics cows from every feed lot. Immediately after the animal was killed, its bladder was removed and the team member collected a urine sample. It was tested in a process what Price likened to a pregnancy test. The images from the tests were scanned and the results reviewed.
“We didn’t call anything positive unless it was tested twice and came up positive twice,” he said.
The tested cattle came from 33 feed yards. The total number of cattle tested was 699, from Feb. 4 to Aug. 27, 2020.
The researchers realized there are financial incentives to cheat the system. It costs every entity in the chain more money to produce animals without antibiotics.
But customers pay more more for raised-without antibiotics meat. Theoretically, if a producer uses antibiotics, they lose that premium.
“If you are really shady and you recognize that there is nobody testing and you can get rapid production and save more money along the way by giving animals antibiotics, that may be an incentive that is hard to overcome,” Price said.
Or it could also be bad record keeping. If an animal received the wrong feed by accident, it might be tempting for a producer to not say anything.
Much of this could be deterred by establishing a strict verification system, the authors say.
The department, “should conduct or require continuous, on-site empirical testing for antibiotics on a meaningful number of animals from every lot delivered for processing.”
Price said that the USDA and retailers should develop a strategy to compensate farmers who must treat animals with antibiotics if the animal becomes ill.
“As it is right now, they have to make this decision: Do I treat and report and lose that markup, or do I withhold that treatment and potentially cause suffering in this animal,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a fair position to put them in.”
Price described the no-antibiotics label as a market-based solution that allows customers to make informed decisions about how they spend their money. Those with the most interest in the issue are the ones who pay the higher prices. But changes are needed to thwart cheating.
“The market only works if the labels are truthful.”