The petition featured more than 550,000 signatures and was delivered by the Meat Without Drugs campaign headed by Consumers Union. The campaign also has the backing of more than a dozen consumer, environmental, and animal welfare organizations.
According to Jean Halloran, director of food policy at Consumers Union, the critical point is that the widespread use of antibiotics in factory farming operations (80% of meat raised in the United States is dosed with antibiotics according to FDA) has given rise to drug-resistant superbugs, causing a looming public health crisis. Infections from these staph germs, known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), are very difficult to treat and the bugs are hard to eradicate once they’ve made an appearance.
“The vast majority of the public health community are adamant that this is a huge problem and that once the bacteria are created you can’t contain them. They don’t stay put,” Halloran told NutraIngredients-USA.
Trader Joe’s already sells some antibiotic free meats, Halloran said. “We’re asking that they go 100% no antibiotics. Whole Foods has done that, and we hope Trader Joe’s will be the next one to switch.”
Group surveyed 13 largest chains
In June, Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, sent secret shoppers in stores in the 13 largest food store chains to see what was being offered and sent letters to all 13 to ask that they stop selling meat dosed with antibiotics.
“We would like the government to mandate that. But Washington has been paralyzed on this issue for going on four decades. FDA first tried in the 1970s to limit antibiotics because of the resistance problem,” Halloran said.
Trader Joe’s had no immediate reaction to the news conference, but did respond to a request for comment from FoodNavigator-USA.
“We understand the importance of our customers’ decisions when it comes to their grocery shopping and do not presume to make choices for them; we work hard to offer products we think fit our customers’ needs—covering a range of considerations,” Alison Mochizuki, head of public relations for Trader Joe’s said via a statement released to FoodNavigator-USA.
“In support of our customers’ looking for a range of meat and poultry options, we continue to develop new sources to support new product offerings with the antibiotic-free (ABF) attribute,” she said.
Antibiotics used in dense feeding operations
The use of antibiotics in meat production came to the fore when farmers started packing animals together in dense feeding operations under factory conditions. Infections had a tendency to spread in the crowded conditions in proximity to large amounts of waste. But the efficiencies gained made relatively low cost meat available to consumers.
The antibiotics do work to keep the animals healthy, but in the process they serve to selectively breed ever-more resistant strains of bugs.
“The continued misuse of antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in industrial food animal production places enormous selective pressure on bacteria and adds to the alarming increase in antibiotic resistant pathogens that threaten human health and animal health," said Robert S. Lawrence, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
There have been cases of MRSA infections crossing from pigs to their handlers. One such case was detailed at the news conference in which a woman working in a feeding operation passed such an infection on to her family and her husband had undergo emergency surgery to eradicate a flesh-eating MRSA outbreak on his leg.
Meat producers would certainly have to make changes to their operations in order to go anti-biotic free, but they wouldn’t necessarily have to abandon the dense feeding operations they have invested in, Halloran said.
“From the reading I’ve done on this it takes some modification on those operations but you don’t have to abandon those large scale operations. You have to pay much more attention to your sanitation. You have to do more cleanouts,” she said.
Of the 13 chains that Consumers Union surveyed, why did the group pick Trader Joe’s for this first intensive engagement?
“They have kind of a progressive, pro-environment, pro-consumer profile. That’s how they present themselves. The sell only sustainable fish and products without genetically engineered ingredients so our view was they should go the extra mile on this one," Halloran said.
"And they are in some ways a competitor to Whole Foods, and Whole Foods is the only chain that has gone 100% no antibiotics so far.”