Most U.S. restaurant chains that serve burgers were given failing grades for their antibiotic use policies in a recent report released by some advocacy groups. While making sure antibiotics are being used responsibly in animal agriculture is important, I worry that reports like these lead to increased consumer confusion on a complex topic.
The report clearly states the only two grades of “A” were awarded to restaurant chains, “sourcing beef raised without any antibiotics.” Such narrow criteria ignore the animal welfare considerations that must be applied when using antibiotics in animals raised for food. Ethical animal care must be taken into consideration when defining responsible use. The use of antibiotics to treat disease and prevent animal suffering is the right thing to do.
We’ve made great progress in recent years in addressing the use of antibiotics in agriculture. Farmers, veterinarians and regulators collaborated to find solutions. The animal health community and veterinarians feel strongly that antibiotics must be used responsibly in both animals and people. We supported recent changes that eliminated the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion and increased veterinary oversight of these antibiotics.
I also fear that reports like this one lead to the notion that people are consuming antibiotics from the meat we eat. Antibiotic residue in food from animals is not a serious issue because there are science-based systems in place to prevent it. Mandatory antibiotic withdrawal periods in animals and routine testing of meat by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and food companies ensure our food is safe. And, the use of antibiotics in animals actually improves food safety because it leads to an overall decrease in bacteria.
The public is right to expect food providers to operate responsibly in delivering food that is safe and wholesome. Restaurants naturally want to give their customers what they want, but restaurants that care about animal welfare are trying to do the right thing, too. They should not be pressured to force their farmer suppliers to make changes that could lead to increased animal suffering.
Some consumers feel strongly that the food they buy must align with their values. Consumers today have many choices when it comes to their food — conventional, local, and organic foods are widely available. Food today is produced all kinds of ways and it’s all safe and nutritious.
I invite the groups behind the report to come to the table and join the dialogue that has led to truly responsible changes in how antibiotics are used in animal agriculture. Let’s work to keep the conversation in proper context and try to lessen consumer confusion.
After all, keeping healthy food affordable while reducing animal pain and suffering is something we all should support.