Researchers tested animals from 33 antibiotic-free-raised feedyards at a single unnamed US slaughterhouse between February and September 2021. During that time, the slaughterhouse processed more than 38,000 cattle from these feedyards, and the researchers randomly selected the animals for the test. The cattle that tested positive for antibiotics came from 14 of the 33 forage farms.
“None of the cattle should have tested positive,” says Lance Price, PhD, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University and co-author of the study. Several feedyards met this standard all or most of the time, but three of the yards had all cattle test positive, he says: “That suggests a systemic application to us.”
To use a “no antibiotics” claim — like “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever” — on meat packaging, companies must submit their label and supporting documentation to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture. A USDA spokesman told Consumer Reports that it verifies documentation provided by farmers seeking permission to use the claim and that “labels may be revoked if there is evidence the claim is untrue.”
But companies only have to submit this documentation once, and the USDA doesn’t conduct its own inspections to determine whether the animals were in fact not given antibiotics, says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety and testing at CR.
“The program is honor-based,” he says. “Farmers should treat sick animals with antibiotics if necessary, but these animals should then be removed from the herd and sold as conventional cattle. They are also not allowed to incorporate animals that are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent disease into beef destined for the antibiotic-free market. This study suggests that is not always the case.”
The lack of independent verification is the reason that standalone “no antibiotics” claims in the CR Guide for food labels on seals and claims received a poor rating.
Price believes the USDA should develop a program to test cattle bred without antibiotics so the claim can be verified. “If the USDA doesn’t test, the retailers who put a big markup on these products have to do it,” he says.
“In a transparent system where regular testing is done, farmers don’t take any chances enforcing these animals,” says Price. “But in a system where everything is based on a signature and a handshake, I think the financial incentives are difficult to overcome.”
Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade association, says its members are “committed to the judicious use of antimicrobial drugs.” He adds that the NCBA believes that “it is important that ranchers comply with USDA-established requirements for labeling claims such as ‘raised without antibiotics’ or other.”