Just two weeks after Consumer Reports issued our Meat on Drugs report criticizing, among other things, USDA’s system for overseeing labels on meat and poultry products that are raised without antibiotics, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sent a letter to Consumers Union indicating that the agency plans to establish a new standard and investigate the use of unapproved antibiotics claims currently made by some companies.
In March, as part of the research for Meat on Drugs, Consumer Reports deployed ‘secret shoppers’ to grocery stores around the country to look for meat raised without antibiotics, and take note of the wording on packages. Little did we expect to find over 20 variations in ‘no antibiotics’-type labels, several of which were unapproved for use by the USDA.
Consumers Union sent a letter to the USDA in June, detailing our findings and asking the agency to look into these unapproved labels, which included:
- Antibiotic free: This is not a defined term by the USDA, as it could have several meanings (for example, were the animals not given antibiotics, or is the meat itself free of antibiotic residues?).
- No antibiotic growth promotants: This label indicates antibiotics were not used to make the animal grow faster, but may have been used for other purposes, such as disease prevention.
- No antibiotic residues: Animals given antibiotics go through a withdrawl period before slaughter in order to allow time for the drugs to clear their systems. While it may be true that a meat product has ‘ no antibiotic residues’, the animal may still have been given antibiotics throughout its life.
In the letter, Consumers Union also points to the need for one standard label regarding antibiotics use (such as ‘no antibiotics administered’) in order to reduce consumer confusion, instill confidence in a meaningful label, and prevent companies from making misleading claims.
In their response, the USDA says they plan to “contact the companies directly” to “investigate the validity of the claims.” The letter also states that the agency has developed new guidelines for companies and producers regarding label approval, which will be available to the public later this year.