Everyone loves the party game/icebreaker “two truths and a lie.”
This week, millions of Americans are shopping for Thanksgiving groceries. Can you identify which of the following is NOT true about meat sold in the grocery store?
A: All meat and milk sold in grocery stores is antibiotic-free.
B: Dairy cows are pumped full of antibiotics to help them produce more milk.
C: Animals, like humans, need antibiotics when they get sick or are injured.
Let’s take these statements one at a time:
Consumers have more choices at the grocery store than ever before. This is even true at the meat counter and in the dairy aisle. Often, consumers see certain meat and milk brands labeled “antibiotic free!” which seems to indicate the product is safer or better. It also usually carries a higher price tag.
Yet consumers should know that all meat and dairy sold in the grocery store is antibiotic-free because it’s actually illegal to sell meat and dairy that contains antibiotic residue. Yes, farmers are allowed to use antibiotics on animals, but the FDA actually regulates how farmers use them and requires the farmer to wait until the animal has fully eliminated those antibiotics from its body before the animal is slaughtered or milked.
Meat and dairy are further tested before they hit grocery store shelves to ensure they are antibiotic free. In fact, according to the National Milk Drug Residue Database, milk tested positive in less than 2 out of every 10,000 tankers of milk in 2016. Milk that tests positive for antibiotics is discarded. So, there are multiple steps along the food chain to ensure consumer safety.
Yet, in a competitive market, industries look for creative ways to make their product look better than their competitors. This is true of meat and dairy companies too. But don’t be fooled. All meat and dairy is antibiotic free—even those not labeled so.
Dairy farmers care about their animals. After all, a dairy farm’s profits rely on healthy, happy, and well cared for animals that are able to produce milk. One common myth of mistreatment is that dairy cows are regularly “pumped” full of antibiotics so that they will produce more milk. Yet, in reality, antibiotics are mainly used in dairy cows to cure specific issues as they come up—such as a sudden injury or a painful condition that’s endemic in dairy cows—mastitis.
Mastitis is the inflammation of the mammary gland and udder tissue. Mastitis can actually lead to permanent damage of the udder. This is also a common ailment in humans among breastfeeding mothers. Like cows, humans are cured with the help of antibiotics.
Just like with beef production, dairy cows are taken off the milking line when receiving antibiotics and dairy farmers are required to leave them off the line until the cow has fully metabolized and excreted all antibiotic residues from its body. The farmer then tests the milk to ensure the milk is antibiotic free. Further tests are taken all along the food chain—from farm to market to ensure the milk is antibiotic free. These steps occur in all dairy production, labeled or not.
Animals, like humans, sometimes need medicine to recover from injuries or disease. In order to use the “antibiotic-free” label on packaging, meat and dairy companies must prove to the USDA that their animals have never been given antibiotics. Yet, this raises ethical questions about animal cruelty and suffering. Should these animals be made to suffer pain and discomfort and possibly death from diseases, infections and/or injuries that can be cured with the use of antibiotics?
Consumers deserve to know that regulations on the meat and dairy industry require farmers to give animals who have received antibiotics time to fully rid their bodies of antibiotics after they have returned to a healthy condition. That means, meat and dairy labeled “antibiotic free” is no better or healthier, but it might have come from a suffering animal denied medicine to improve its life.
This Thanksgiving we can all be thankful that we live in a time and place where antibiotics are readily available for humans and animals, and that our food supply chain appropriately prioritizes consumer safety in the event that antibiotics are used.