Most National Grocery Chains Fail Antibiotics-in-Meat Test

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Oct. 12, 2022 — Three-quarters of the largest grocery chains in the U.S. are failing to limit the use of antibiotics in their house-brand fresh meat, thus contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistance. 

That’s according to a new report, “Superbugs in Stock,” produced by members of a coalition of public health, animal protection, and consumer groups known as Antibiotics Off the Menu. Of the nation’s top food retailers, Target fared the best — but even it only received a C grade.

About half of the fresh meat sold in this country is purchased in stores. 

“That means the grocery industry has a potentially major impact on how antibiotics are used in meat production,” says Matthew Wellington, public health campaigns director at U.S. PIRG, a member of the coalition. “This report shows a dire need for more progress in the grocery sector.”

A Report Card for Supermarkets

For the past 6 years, the coalition focused on restaurants, with an annual report about the practices of major fast-food and fast-casual chains. In the wake of these reports, several chains announced changes to their policies, though not all have followed through. 

“We saw there was progress with the restaurant chains, so we wanted to look at the other place people get most of their food,” says Steven Roach of the Food Animal Concerns Trust, lead author of the report. “And coming through the pandemic, where there had been a shift from people eating out to eating at home, we thought it was good time to look at grocery chains.”

Roach and his co-authors gathered information about the supermarket chains’ policies on antibiotic use in private-label chicken, turkey, pork, and beef through a survey as well as company websites and published materials. They assigned points for various scoring criteria — things like having a meaningful and transparent public policy that links to animal welfare, enforcement of that policy, and using third-party verification.

Their findings don’t exactly inspire confidence. Of the dozen major grocery retailers in the U.S., eight received an F grade, with 10 points or fewer out of a possible 100. That group includes Kroger, Walmart, and Albertsons, three of the five top-earning grocers in the U.S. While many of the failing companies do carry some house-brand meat labeled “raised without antibiotics,” none have strong policies to cover the entire range of their private-label fresh meat.

Target scored highest, with 56 points and a C grade. The company has a policy for each species of animal products and connects that policy to animal welfare. But it’s unclear how much of their meat currently abides by the policy. Ahold Delhaize, parent company of supermarkets like Stop & Shop, Food Lion, and Giant, came in second with 34 points and a C-. They, too, have publicly available policies for each species of animal product and stumble when it comes to follow-through. Meijer and Costco each received a D grade because while they prohibit routine antibiotic use in their private-label chicken and link the policy to animal welfare, they do little else.

WebMD reached out to all 12 grocers for comments and heard back from just three. Walmart published position on antibiotics, and ALDI pointed out their no-antibiotics chicken products. Ahold Delhaize responded but wouldn’t comment without seeing the report first, which was embargoed for today.

Outside the top 12, some smaller chains are faring better. The report cites Whole Foods, Mom’s Organic Market, and Natural Grocers as three chains already restricting antibiotic use. Whole Foods has gone all-in, with a “no antibiotics ever” policy for store-brand products, while the other two prohibit widespread antibiotic use for disease prevention. Here, too, questions arise about monitoring and verification programs.

Why Antibiotic Use Matters

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria and fungi change in response to antibiotic use, which leaves those drugs powerless against the germs. That increases the risk of dangerous, even deadly infections. According to CDC estimates, each year more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections happen in the U.S., and more than 35,000 people die from them. The World Health Organization ranks antibiotic resistance among “the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.”

The more antibiotics are used, the more likely resistance becomes. And large-scale livestock producers use a lot of antibiotics, including many also used by humans, known as medically important antibiotics. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 44% more of those drugs go to animals than to humans. In many cases, they’re used for widespread disease prevention rather than treatment.

“Antibiotics should be used to treat sick animals,” Wellington says. “But they should not be used to prevent disease that’s brought on by unsanitary, overcrowded, and stressful living conditions for the animals.”

The FDA has taken some steps to reduce the widespread use of medically important antibiotics in food-animal production, implementing new guidelines in 2017. While sales of those drugs for animals have decreased since their peak in 2015, they seem to have plateaued. 

The news isn’t all bad on this front. From 2016 to 2020, sales of medically important antibiotics for use with chickens fell 72%. Thanks to consumer demand, more than half of all chickens raised in the U.S. now receive no antibiotics ever, and only 1% receive medically important antibiotics.

“Grocery stores are a primary way consumers get information about meat products,” Wellington says. “So if grocery stores step up and say, ‘We won’t source meat raised with the overuse of antibiotics for our private label products,’ it would not only help to shift the meat industry, it would also help to educate consumers on this issue.” 

Calling Attention and Calling for Action

The coalition’s report aims to shine a light on how the widespread use of antibiotics in food-animal production affects human health. 

“We’re not worrying about antibiotics in the meat you eat,” Roach says. “We’re worrying about hard-to-treat bacteria that come from the overuse of antibiotics.”

Among the six recommendations for grocery chains in the report:

  • Commit to phasing out the routine use of antibiotics for disease prevention, especially medically important ones. 
  • Improve data collection and transparency about how and why antibiotics are being used.
  • Use third-party monitors to verify supplying farms’ progress.

Consumers, too, have a role to play.

“Vote with your wallet — purchase meat raised without antibiotics,” Wellington says. “That will spur more producers. And call on your grocery stores to implement a strong policy for private label products.”

When buying meat, look for verified standards for animal welfare, such as seals saying, “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Certified Humane,” or “Global Animal Partnership Certified.” The report warns against relying upon “One Health Certified” labels — it’s a program developed by meat companies themselves, reflecting existing factory farming standards. Antibiotics can still be used routinely.

The report also includes recommendations for meat producers, federal and local regulators and policymakers, investors, and institutional meat buyers.

“It takes effort to make those changes, but we know it’s possible and it’s worth it. We’re talking about preserving life-saving medicine,” Wellington says. “We can’t afford to lose those medicines to produce a slightly cheaper burger or pork chop.” 

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