Will the USDA Crack Down on Antibiotics Labeling in Meat? | Civil Eats

Will the USDA Crack Down on Antibiotics Labeling in Meat?

In this week’s Field Report: Federal agencies focus on antibiotics and truth in food labeling, the ongoing hydroponics-in-organic debate, and more.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it will begin evaluating how to better regulate the use of terms that describe how farm animals are raised—like “free-range” and “grass-fed”—on meat products. And while the agency’s plan will tackle multiple claims, it zeroed in specifically on labels relating to antibiotic use: both “raised without antibiotics” and “no antibiotics ever.”

Many experts and advocates who work to reduce the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture to slow the proliferation of dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria cheered the news. Despite a rise in antibiotic-related labels at the grocery store, the use of medically important antibiotics in feed and water is still routine and widespread in pork and beef production.

Laura Rogers, the deputy director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University, said the agency’s action is “a big deal” for farmers and ranchers and for eaters who aim to buy meat from systems that minimize or eliminate antibiotic use.

Farm Forward Executive Director Andrew deCoriolis said the effectiveness of the effort will depend on whether the agency establishes binding requirements or simply issues voluntary guidance.

“If you’re going to buy a product and do the right thing and pay that extra premium, you deserve to get what you pay for,” Rogers said. “If you spoke to a rancher who is not cheating, they too would want to see the cheaters weeded out.”

That’s one big reason the USDA cited for taking action: The plan is part of the Biden administration’s larger initiative to increase competition in the U.S. economy. In agriculture, that has meant targeting increasing consolidation in the meat industry and finding ways to level the playing field for farmers and ranchers who have lost power and profits to a small handful of big meat packers.

In March, for example, USDA proposed a long-sought update to the “Product of USA” meat label that would require meat bearing the label to come from animals born and raised in the U.S. As it stands now, just processing the meat here is enough to warrant the label.

USDA’s current process for evaluating no-antibiotic claims is minimal, and there’s real evidence that suggests some producers are cheating, making it harder for farms legitimately taking on the cost of eliminating antibiotics to compete.

In April 2022, Rogers and her colleagues at the Milken Institute published a study that found 15 percent of beef samples labeled “raised without antibiotics” came from a feedlot where an animal had tested positive for antibiotics. To get the numbers, the researchers used testing done by FoodID, a company working to bring transparency to antibiotics use in meat.

Now, USDA says it will do its own sampling project. It will then use those results to determine whether it should do its own testing of all products submitted to carry the “raised without antibiotics” claim or require producers to submit their own lab testing results.

Rogers said it will be key that the agency uses “the most modern technology available . . . that can detect trace amounts” of antibiotics.

In a blog post, Andrew deCoriolis, Farm Forward’s executive director, said the effectiveness of the effort will depend on whether the agency establishes binding requirements or simply issues voluntary guidance. He also pointed to USDA’s plan to encourage third-party certifications as a potentially controversial option, given how much those private certifications vary in what they require.

“Even if the USDA does require third-party certification, it’s critical that they disqualify industry-controlled humanewashing certifications like One Health Certified or American Humane as evidence that a company has indeed raised animals in more humane conditions,” he wrote. USDA Organic and American Grassfed are examples of certification schemes that don’t allow antibiotics in production.

Meanwhile, in the same week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its own news about antibiotics in meat. It announced it had officially finished the process of moving all medically important antibiotics that still had over-the-counter status to prescription. Most of the common drugs were moved over several years ago, and this announcement applied to the last group representing only around 3 percent of the total used, estimated Steve Roach, a senior analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working.

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“It’s symbolic; it’s not going to achieve a huge reduction in antibiotic use in food animal production,” Rogers explained, since most medically important drugs given to animals routinely are administered with veterinarian approval. “What FDA really needs to do is the work that they have not picked up since 2013, where they left this loophole where there are lots and lots of drugs that are used in food and water in animal production for prevention. It’s not a judicious use of life-saving antibiotics.”

Read More:
Is the U.S. Doing Enough to Address the Meat Industry’s Role in Antibiotic Resistance?
Could a Rapid Test for Antibiotics Force Transparency in the Meat Supply?
FDA Data Shows a Worrisome Increase in Antibiotic Use in Animal Agriculture

Budget Battles. Last Wednesday, Republican representatives on the House Appropriations Committee passed a controversial agriculture spending bill for fiscal year 2024 that includes deep cuts and policy riders with serious implications for food and agriculture programs. On nutrition programs, the bill would again increase work requirements and limit food choices within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) while significantly cutting funding and extra fruit and vegetable benefits for mothers and children receiving Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits.

“Hunger in this country would be far worse if not for programs like SNAP and WIC. Reducing funding for these programs will increase hunger, malnutrition, and poverty and worsen family security, child and adult health, employment, and other outcomes,” said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), in a statement.

On agriculture, Republicans inserted a policy rider that would stop the USDA from moving forward with new rules to enforce provisions of the Packers and Stockyards Act meant to protect farmers from meatpacker power imbalances. A coalition of 102 farm organizations including the National Farmers Union and the National Family Farm Coalition sent a letter to lawmakers opposing the rider, which meat industry-aligned groups including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association called “a win for cattle producers.”

Read More:
A Food Program for Women and Children Is About to Get More Federal Support
Just a Few Companies Control the Meat Industry. Can a New Approach to Monopolies Level the Playing Field?

Soil Saga Continues. After years of debate and protest among farmers, certifiers, food companies, and experts over whether hydroponic fruit and vegetable production should be eligible for organic certification, the board that oversees the USDA Organic program voted to allow it in 2017. Five years later, the issue is far from settled. Last week, a group of six organic certifiers and the Real Organic Project opened up a new battlefront with the USDA. OneCert, OneCert International, OEFFA Certification, Vermont Organic Farmers, NOFA-NY Certified Organic, and MOFGA Certification Services announced that they would all continue to refuse to certify hydroponic farms, despite the USDA citing OneCert for noncompliance with the agency’s standards. The group also released a position paper with scientific and legal arguments supporting the decision. The paper was endorsed by 71 food and agriculture organizations. “Soil is the foundation of organic systems and respect for these farmers and their voices is foundational to the integrity of the organic movement,” said Julia Barton, a policy specialist at OEFFA.

Read More:
What Is the Future of Organic?
If Your Veggies Weren’t Grown in Soil, Can They Be Organic?

New Research on Gas Stoves. In recent years, the case for shifting to electric stoves has grown stronger. Research has shown gas units continuously emit climate-warming methane, and that cooking with gas can lead to nitrogen dioxide and other dangerous emissions in the home. Now, a study published in Environmental Science & Technology details yet another health hazard. After collecting data from 87 homes in California and Colorado, researchers found that gas stoves emit benzene when operating. Benzene is classified as a carcinogen and is associated with some cancers at certain levels of exposure. “Our findings suggest that the concentrations of benzene produced by combustion from gas stoves and ovens indoors may increase health risks under some conditions,” the researchers wrote.

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Read More:
Methane from Agriculture Is a Big Problem. We Explain Why
Leaving Some Farmland Fallow Benefits the Air We Breathe

The Cost of Hot and Dry Conditions. While California and Colorado have long been the focus of conversations about drought affecting agriculture, Midwest farmers are now being hit hard by lack of rainfall. More than half of the country’s corn, soybean, sorghum, and winter wheat crops are currently affected by drought, according to new USDA data. In Iowa, farmers are monitoring their crops closely for slower growth that could affect yields.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group just released an analysis of how climate change is affecting farms in the Southwest, leading to higher costs for taxpayers. EWG found that in more than half of the counties in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, temperatures increased between 2000 and 2001 while heat-related crop insurance payouts also rose. The organization calculated that Southwest farmers received over $1.33 billion in crop insurance payments for reduced crop yields due to heat.

Read More:
In the Age of Megadrought, Farmers See Promise in Agave
As Drought Hits Farms, Investors Lay Claim to Colorado Water

Saving California Salmon. Members of a coalition of tribes and environmental advocacy groups will hold a “day of action” on July 5 at the California state capitol to fight recent policy decisions they say threaten salmon populations and hurt the Indigenous communities for whom the fish is a resource and important part of their cultural heritage. Governor Gavin Newsom has sought changes to environmental laws to make it easier for the state to bypass environmental reviews to greenlight infrastructure projects. Some of the projects on the table would divert water resources in ways experts say would decimate salmon populations.

Read More:
“Salmon is Life.” For Native Alaskans, Salmon Declines Pose Existential Crisis
What the History of Salmon Can Tell Us About the Future of the Planet

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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