Many major meat brands sell a range of products labeled antibiotic-free. And yet, sales of medically important antibiotics in the pork and beef industries have ticked up in the last two years.
“So much of what is being sold as ‘antibiotic-free’ or ‘no antibiotics ever’ is just not that,” says Bill Niman, cattle rancher and founder of the Niman Ranch brand. As he sees it, that gap between what consumers expect and what’s happening behind most farmgates—where antibiotics, which happen to speed growth, are routinely used to prevent animals from getting sick in stressful and crowded conditions—is a major cause for concern.
“We know this works, and we’re very optimistic that when we succeed and this is deployed, that change will occur.”
According to scientists, antibiotic resistance—the growing number of “superbugs” that are resistant to treatment—is “widely considered to be the next global pandemic.” And while a number of countries have successfully reduced dependence on them, the U.S. is behind the curve. For example, the U.S. cattle industry uses medically important antibiotics four to six times more intensively than four of the top livestock-producing countries in Europe, according to analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Now, Niman and FoodID, the company he co-founded, are hoping a simple test—and a resulting food label for products that pass it—will provide much-needed transparency and, as a result, force wide-scale change in the industry. Niman has been calling attention to how antibiotic use in meat production drives the public health threat for decades, and in an interview with Civil Eats, he presented FoodID as not just a company that will expose fraudulent claims and provide a marketing tool to better meat sellers, but also as a bold opportunity to transform the food system.
“We know this works, and we’re very optimistic that when we succeed and this is deployed, that change will occur,” he said.
The approach would be strikingly different from the existing efforts to curb the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. In recent years, advocates have been pressuring fast food chains to make public sourcing commitments—just to see most of them fail to follow through on those commitments—and working to influence federal and state-level policies.
But while advocates and experts agree that any innovation that increases transparency around antibiotics’ use in farmed animals is a good thing, many are skeptical about whether the technology will move the needle on antibiotic use in a larger, more consequential way, especially since its current model relies on voluntary adoption and is likely to be utilized by companies already implementing more responsible antibiotic policies.
Bill Niman is one of the biggest names in sustainable meat. His namesake pork and beef company, Niman Ranch, is now owned by Perdue Farms; he sold another meat company, BN Ranch, to Blue Apron in 2017, and he continues to raise beef cattle on pasture in Bolinas, California.
In addition to his five decades of experience ranching, Niman was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which investigated the issue of antibiotic resistance and in 2008, recommended a ban on non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in agriculture.
In 2014, Niman met Dan Denney, a Stanford microbiologist and immunologist who had taken an interest in the many unverified claims made on food labels. “He was really astounded that there wasn’t, in this day and age, technology being applied to validating claims or data accumulated to support the guys who were doing the right thing,” Niman said. They joined forces to found FoodID and later brought on Kevin Lo, a tech executive who has worked for both Facebook and Google, as CEO. The company launched in 2020 and raised $12 million in a Series B investment round this past March.
While tests for antibiotic residue in meat already exist, FoodID’s version uses flow-through technology, the same technology used in at-home pregnancy tests, to make the process faster, cheaper, and more sensitive than ever before, Niman says. Using that tech, the company’s first application seeks to partner with companies to validate their “no antibiotics” claims, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires testing just .0025 percent of animals each year. With chicken, FoodID’s team tests multiple birds pulled from each chicken house; with cattle and pigs, they test carcasses at the slaughter facilities.
Just like in humans, antibiotics are metabolized and excreted after a certain amount of time, and while different drugs stay in different tissue types for various lengths of time, Lo explained by email that FoodID’s test is sensitive enough to detect whether the animal was ever administered antibiotics within its lifetime.
“We are validating whether the animal has been administered antibiotics and not whether there is residue in the meat,” Lo said. “If an antibiotic is detected, it means that drugs were present. It’s like human drug testing at the Olympics.”
Keeve Nachman, the director of the Food Production and Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, is an expert on industrial agriculture’s public health impacts and has worked on studies that tested feather meal and supermarket meat for antibiotic residues in the past. He said that depletion in tissues does matter, and that it would be impossible for him to evaluate whether FoodID’s test could do what the company says it does without seeing data from their verification processes. A spokesperson for the company told Civil Eats that “data from FoodID’s technology is under USDA review to inform label approvals,” and is therefore confidential.
“We’ve tested tens of thousands of animals and have proven the ability to test, and now it’s just a matter of it being deployed in the best possible ways,” Niman said.
The most obvious application of FoodID’s test is to hold sellers that say they are removing antibiotics from their supply chain accountable.
Currently, FoodID tests for seven drug families, chosen because they represent the most common drugs used in animal agriculture. Tetracyclines, for example, are used widely in both beef and pork production, and tylosin, used in cattle, is a macrolide. Niman said providing information on families of drugs tested rather than individual drugs kept the information simple for companies and consumers, but Steve Roach, senior analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working and the Safe and Healthy Food Program director at Food Animal Concerns Trust, said he thought a limitation of the report was that it didn’t give more detailed information on individual antibiotics.
On the flipside, Roach thought the fact that the panel also tested for beta-agonists—which are not antibiotics but are also given to cattle and other farmed animals in feed—would be helpful to raise awareness of the fact that those drugs are routinely administered purely for faster growth.
FoodID in the Future
In October, FoodID employees ran tests on liver, kidney, and muscle tissue from 13 chickens raised by Arkansas farmers in the supplier network for Cooks Venture, a relatively new company that works with farmers to raise slower-growing chickens outdoors.
Just like in the more than 700 previous tests they’d performed on the company’s birds since March 2020, they found no trace of antibiotics.
Soon, all of that information will be available to Cooks Venture’s customers through a scannable QR code on the packaging, backing up its stated commitment to use “no antibiotics ever.”
The most obvious application of FoodID’s test is to hold sellers that say they are removing antibiotics from their supply chain accountable. “As long as companies are making ‘raised without antibiotics’ commitments . . . it’s really good to have people making sure that they’re actually fulfilling those,” Roach said.
In chicken, several of the biggest poultry companies, including Perdue and Tyson, fall into that category. The latter came under fire at one point for injecting eggs with an antibiotic while making “raised without” claims.
In cattle especially, Niman sees FoodID’s technology as critical for catching cheaters, since most cattle moves from cow-calf operations to feedlots and then on to meat processing businesses, making the practices along the way difficult to trace.
But questions remain as to why a company would choose to pay to test their meat when they can make (or not make) claims without doing so. Niman and Matt Wadiak, the founder and CEO of Cooks Venture, are both banking on peer pressure, for starters. “The bottom line is the industry has to move to science to represent claims, and just simply saying something is no longer enough,” said Wadiak. “The whole world knows at this point that any affidavit-based systems can be abused.”
While the routine use of antibiotics in pork and beef production hasn’t fallen dramatically the way it has in chicken in response to consumer pressure, Wadiak says all kinds of claims—including natural, grass-fed, and antibiotic-free—are being made on every cut of meat at stores like Walmart. “It’s become mainstream,” he said. “That’s the indicator; they wouldn’t sell it if they didn’t think it was important to people.”
“Eventually this will be in the consumers’ hands, and industry will have to come to grips with that.”
Companies like Cooks Venture, which have been committed to raising animals without antibiotics from the start, are out in front, but it’s hard to imagine a company that is actively cheating signing up. At Hopkins, Nachman said FoodID seemed like a tool with lots of regulatory potential, but outside of that context, he wondered what the added value for consumers would be.
“What impact will a label like this have on consumer decision making, if the company already could make a claim that it never used antibiotics?” he said. “Now, there’s a verification by a company that’s working closely with the company selling the product; will it make consumers feel any more confident? Maybe some . . . but I wonder if the juice is worth the squeeze.”
But Niman sees potential in the tool beyond its elective use, especially if in the future FoodID makes its technology more widely available to consumer watchdogs, who could choose to test meat from a number of large companies as a way to pressure them to acknowledge, and ultimately change, their practices.
Niman points to the European Union, where a number of nations have undergone major efforts to significantly cut down on the use of antibiotics in livestock in recent years. “In the E.U., when they outlawed the use of antibiotics to promote growth . . . at first they had a lot of sick animals and then they realized they had to make husbandry changes—to provide more space, better ventilation, deep bedding instead of [having the animals] standing in their liquified manure . . . and all of those changes ended up being better for the animals, community, and the environment,” he says.
Niman also argues that while making those changes will require initial investments from companies and consumers, he’s optimistic that leveling the playing field, and removing the markup on antibiotic-free products, “can actually reduce the price as opposed to just appealing to an elitist customer base. If everyone has the same methodology they’re going to find ways to make it more efficient,” he says.
If the data from FOOD ID’s initial work passes muster, Niman is also looking toward future iterations of the technology that will have broader applications, and therefore, implications. “My vision is . . . a whole family of tests on a pegboard at the checkout counter at your local market and you can test for: Is this really GMO-free? Is it grass-fed beef? Is it farm-raised fish? And you can know quickly and easily when you get home or in your car,” he said. “Eventually this will be in the consumers’ hands, and industry will have to come to grips with that.”
Twilight Greenaway contributed reporting.
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