Antibiotic-Free Meat: Why to Care and Where to Find it

The Meat We Eat: Forum on Industrial Animal FarmingLast April, I attended a forum on industrial animal farming at Harvard Law School. Needless to say, this was not the type of conference that will make you walk away craving a hamburger. Experts spoke to the many concerns about the livestock industry, including animal welfare, greenhouse gas emissions, and the quantity of food available. However, antibiotic overuse in livestock (a suspected contributor of antibiotic resistance) was perhaps the most concerning issue.

Antibiotic resistance is dangerous because it can make normally harmless bacterial infections, such as bladder infections, deadly. This is because if the antibiotic fails, the bacteria can move into the bloodstream, causing sepsis. Hospitals are also seeing an increasing number of “superbugs” (such as MRSA), which are dangerous infections that are resistant to many common antibiotics.

Scientists generally agree that antibiotic resistance is fueled by the overuse of antibiotics. For example, taking antibiotics to treat a viral infection, such as the flu, is not only ineffective, but can actually lead to the promotion of these superbugs. However, it is a lesser-known fact that an estimated 70% of antibiotics are actually used on farms, both to promote growth using less feed, and to prevent disease from spreading in the confined conditions of industrial livestock operations. (Note: Putting antibiotics in livestock feed is banned in the EU, but not in the US.)

Chickens at Olivia in Austin

At Olivia, a farm-to-table restaurant in Austin, TX, chickens are raised sustainably on site, undoubtedly without antibiotics

For this reason, many public health experts are urging the livestock industry to significantly cut antibiotic use. Until then, however, many consumers are seeking out meat raised without antibiotics. After all, antibiotic resistant bacteria can transfer from livestock to humans through food, particularly in raw or undercooked meat (see this recent Frontline episode to learn more). In response to these concerns, six of the largest US school districts (in LA, NYC, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and Orlando) announced last month that they are switching to antibiotic-free chicken, a huge step for both food system reformers and child nutrition advocates.

Where to find antibiotic-free meat:

Beans and fish are my preferred protein sources, but I like a warm rotisserie chicken as much as the next girl. Here are a few of my favorite spots to get antibiotic-free meat and poultry from:

  • WHOLE FOODS MARKET: All antibiotic use is prohibited in all meat and poultry sold at Whole Foods. To learn more about the quality standards of the meat sold at Whole Foods, including the 5-step animal welfare rating system, see here.
  •  CHIPOTLE: All antibiotic use is prohibited in all pork and chicken sold at Chipotle (except in special circumstances, in which they will inform customers).  A recent press release from Chipotle states that all meat is antibiotic free, yet the beef page on their website doesn’t describe a stance on antibiotic use in beef.
  • PANERA BREAD: In 2014, 91% of pork received no antibiotics, 100% of chicken in sandwiches and salads received no antibiotics (same for all hen eggs that supply shell and hard boiled eggs), and “nearly all” of the roasted turkey received no antibiotics. This year, Panera Bread intends to meet or exceed these standards. Again, there are no statistics on antibiotic use in beef, although impressively, 80% of beef was grass fed in 2014.

Where do you find antibiotic-free meat?

– Kelly