No antibiotics claim gains momentum

Only 4 percent of cattle entering into Cactus Feeders yards receive antibiotics, says Paul Defoor, Cactus Feeders co-chief executive. Photo courtesy Cactus Feeders

With the introduction of the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) in 2017, the livestock industry has already made a giant leap in addressing consumer concerns about antibiotic resistance in humans.

And while the VFD may be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of regulatory pressures producers may face in the future, the demands from retailers as they work to meet consumer expectations could quickly change the way animals are managed and treated for disease as they make their way from pasture to plate.

Many retailers have already adopted a “No Antibiotics Ever” policy for poultry. These companies included Chick-fil-A, Papa Johns, Boston Market, Culver’s, Perdue, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, Papa Murphy’s, Dunkin Brands, Tyson and Progresso.

“The interest of antibiotic use in animal agriculture is certainly nothing new,” saidHannah Thompson-Weeman, Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA) vice president of communications. “In the last several years as we’ve seen new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidances for the use of antibiotics in feed, more attention has been brought to the subject. We’ve also seen an increase from the retail side as they market how animals are raised, such as cage-free eggs, for example. Now, we are seeing a greater push from brands to push for stronger policies on antibiotics.”

Thompson-Weeman explained that the No Antibiotics Ever marketing claim has largely been used in the poultry industry, but the beef and hog industries may not be too far behind. Already, companies like Domino’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, KFC, Cracker Barrell, Qdoba, Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Horton’s have policies that require sourcing chicken, beef and poultry from animals that have never been given antibiotics important to human medicine.

“Consumers aren’t necessarily pushing this trend for no antibiotics, but agitators certainly are,” she said. “This of course will create inefficiencies and animal health issues and could greatly impact how we manage, treat and prevent diseases in the future. A greater push for No Antibiotic Ever beef and pork is coming to the forefront now because people simply don’t know the differences between how poultry are raised compared to hogs and cattle. Yet, these groups point out that if the poultry farmers can so easily restrict antibiotic use, why can’t the cattle and hog guys do the same?”

In September 2017, several groups including Consumers Union, Natural Resources Defense Council, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Friends of the earth, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Center for Food Safety specifically criticized the beef and pork industries. Ranking restaurants that meet their standards of antibiotic use, the groups compiled a report that gave Panera and Chipotle “A” grades for having comprehensive policies that restrict the use of antibiotics and “F” grades to eleven restaurants including Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebee’s and Olive Garden for failing to adopt and disclose effective antibiotic stewardship policies.

Commenting in a press release on this report, Matthew Wellington, U.S. PIRG Education Fund program director, is relying heavily on retailers to move the trend in a direction he deems appropriate. He said, “McDonald’s changed its chicken suppliers, and recently put out a strong vision to address misuse in pork and beef. By turning this vision into a reality, McDonald’s can pressure the meat industry to cut the rampant misuse of life-saving antibiotics that fuels these superbugs.”

Lena Brook, Natural Resources Defense Council food policy advocate, added, “When it comes to chicken nuggets, we’ve seen incredible change in a few short years—but burgers and bacon are another story. To keep our life-saving antibiotics working when people need them, the entire meat industry—beef and pork included—must start using them responsibly.”

Despite these external pressures, a 2016 summary report evaluating antimicrobials sold or distributed for use in food-producing animals shows a downward trend in antibiotics used and sold within the industry.

According to the report, “Domestic sales and distribution of medically important antimicrobials approved for use in food-producing animals decreased by 14% from 2015 through 2016, with decreases represented in all individual drug classes. Tetracycline sales represent the largest volume of these domestic sales (5,866,588 kg in 2016), decreasing 15% from 2015 through 2016. Cephalosporin sales volume decreased by 4% from 2015 through 2016. Lincosamide sales volume showed the greatest percentage decrease in domestic sales (22%) from 2015 through 2016.”

This trend is evident in the feedlot, as well. Paul Defoor, Cactus Feeders co-chief executive, says less than 4% of of the animals that walk into their feedlots receive antibiotics. What’s more, they’ll soon make a 20% reduction in the use of Tylosin for treating liver abscesses, thanks to new research from the feedyards.

This is a good move considering Wendy’s adopted a new policy in 2018 that pledges the company will buy about 15% of its beef from producers that have each pledged to reduce their Tylosin use by 20%. Wendy’s is the third-largest burger chain in the U.S., and according to Reuters, “There is ‘a growing public health concern about antibiotic resistance,’ Wendy’s said, adding that the company believes it ‘could help by reducing or eliminating antibiotic use in our food supply.’”

It’s important to note that one in every 25 fed cattle in the U.S. is Cactus beef, and each week, 20,000 head of Cactus cattle produce 12 million pounds of boneless red meat, so these practices and reductions represent a huge segment of the beef cattle industry.

“Yes, there are these companies that are marketing antibiotic-free meat, but I don’t think the beef industry is too far behind in these positions,” said Defoor. “At Cactus, we are striving to create a system that doesn’t need antibiotics. However, we simply can’t say we won’t use antibiotics because we have a duty of care; we want to improve the system, so we don’t need them anymore. I think the industry is on the same page with this, and we all need to keep the full court press on finding these alternatives both in treatments and in feed.”

In the meantime, Defoor said the industry needs to educate retailers about the nature of this challenge and how the meat producers can address it.

“This is why we host so many tours at Cactus; we don’t want retailers to make rash decisions in policies without first knowing the ramifications of what they might be forcing on to the industry,” said Defoor. “Education is important, and I think with new technologies or vaccines, we can continue to reduce our antibiotic use.”

Thompson-Weeman said while the industry works to make improvements, she worries about retailer demands that could force producers to choose between losing money by treating a calf or being able to sell into the primary market that requires a No Antibiotics Ever policy.

“As long as this trend for no antibiotics continues, I would definitely be watching what retailers are doing because they move quickly, and their polices directly impact producers,” said Thompson-Weeman.

To further explore the No Antibiotics Ever trend, the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s 2018 Stakeholders Summit is scheduled for May 3-4 at the Renaissance Capital View Hotel in Arlington, Va.

Dr. Randall Singer, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine, will be presenting his research findings on the potential impact on animal welfare resulting from these No Antibiotics Ever policies.

“My team and I have worked to survey key audiences – including producers and veterinarians – about their perceptions of and experiences with No Antibiotics Ever programs,” said Dr. Singer. “Once complete, the resulting report will provide food companies with additional information about the tradeoffs and ramifications of these programs, in particular on animal welfare, as they consider potential policies.”

The event will be live streamed, so producers can watch along at home. Check out for details and follow the hashtags #AAA18 and #ProtectYourRoots for updates from the event.

“With some food brands adopting policies restricting or eliminating the ability to use antibiotics to manage animal health, it is vital to understand any potential drawbacks to ensure both the animals and the sustainability of the food industry are not negatively impacted,” said Kay Johnson Smith, AAA president and CEO in a press release. “We are excited to have this research shared for the very first time at Summit with all of our attendees.” F