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CU letter to USDA expresses concern about confusing claims about antibiotics on meat packages

June 18, 2012

Tom Vilsack, Secretary
Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary
US Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Merrigan:

Consumer Reports and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, have recently conducted a shopping scan of labels on more than 1,000 packages of meat from stores across the country specifically looking for labels indicating that no antibiotics were used in production. We also conducted additional label research. We were able to identify a number of “no antibiotics used” claims that were approved by USDA. However, we also identified a few claims that were not approved by USDA and yet are being used in stores or on products. We contacted staff at USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to ask several questions and appreciate the prompt responses we received. We are writing to you today to share our concerns and recommendations regarding the “no antibiotics used” labels.

Need for an established standard and transparent process

We have long urged USDA to take steps to formally establish a meaningful, transparent and clear standard behind the “no antibiotics used” label claims. In 2002, the USDA unsuccessfully attempted to define “no antibiotics used” and never completed the process. In February 2009, Consumers Union reiterated our concerns about the lack of a formal definition to Secretary Vilsack. Specifically, we urge the USDA to formally define the claim as meaning no antibiotics and no ionophores were used for the lifetime of the animal.

In addition, we believe that these claims should be verified and that the USDA Process Verified program offers a credible program that should be required in the absence of other verification (such as organic). USDA did indicate in interviews to Consumer Reports that it does not allow use of ionophores, and prohibits antibiotic use at any stage of an animal’s life, if meat is to carry a “no antibiotics used” label, but the full definition is not published on USDA’s website. This would help both companies and consumers understand label requirements and facilitate better enforcement. USDA should also check up on labels that make no antibiotics claims in order to verify their truthfulness, and take action against labels that do not conform to its established definitions.

USDA/FSIS currently conducts its reviews for approving labels behind closed doors, and does not disclose what specific labels it has authorized, or which companies have been authorized to use them. USDA should post on its website all authorized labels, the products they are authorized for, and the label definition, to help consumers understand the labels.

Need for one approved no antibiotics used claim

USDA should establish one approved phrasing for such labels, such as “no antibiotics ever used,” and restrict all labels to that usage. This would significantly reduce consumer confusion and the subsequent potential for misleading uses of the claim.

Unapproved labels found in the marketplace

We identified a number of claims being used in the marketplace which, according to several interviews with Food Safety Inspection Service, have not been approved. These claims are “No Antibiotic Growth Promotants,” “Antibiotic Free,” and “No Antibiotic Residues.” We understand that none of these claims have been approved yet they were identified in the marketplace by CR shoppers. We urge the USDA to investigate these label misuses.

“Antibiotic free”–We identified this label on Ranger chicken at QFC supermarket in Seattle, WA on March 17, 2012 and Trader Joe’s in Federal Way, WA on March 23, 2012 in our shopping survey. This label was also spotted on a placard, in a meat case, in front of some steaks, at a Publix store in St. Petersburg, FL on March 20, 2012.

“No Antibiotics Residues” — We identified this label on several packages of Sprouts Old Tyme pork (including ground and chops). We found this claim on multiple pork products found in two Sprouts stores located in Redondo Beach, California and Mesa, Arizona that we visited in May 2011.

“No Antibiotic Growth Promotants” — This label appeared on pork products under the Farmland brand at Fred Meyer in Kent, WA on March 23, 2012 and Boise, ID on March 17, 2012; QFC in Des Moines, WA on March 27, 2012; and Ralphs in Ventura, CA on March 20, 2012 (all stores owned by Kroger). Farmland did not provide any explanation on its website of what it means.

Confusing claims found in the marketplace

No Antibiotics, with an asterisk (*):

One other label we identified in the market that caused us concern was Naturewell’s “No Antibiotics*” with a footnote “*as verified by 120 day affidavit” found on multiple Naturewell beef products. We found examples of this label at Meijer stores in Oxford, MI on March 24, 2012 and Fort Wayne, IN on March 22, 2012. Puzzled about the footnote, we went to Naturewell’s website, where on a Frequently Asked Questions page we found the following:

 Q: What does the statement on your label, “As verified by 120 day affidavit” mean?

A: It is a common practice in the industry to ensure compliance with program protocols through legal affidavits….Naturewell is a 120-day withdraw program that delivers beef free of antibiotics and added hormones. Naturewell achieves this by prohibiting antibiotic and added hormone use during the final 120 days of feeding, ensuring ample time for any traces to be 100% metabolized out of the animal.

In other words, this beef is only “No Antibiotics” for the last four months of its life. Since Naturewell indicates that the cattle are generally slaughtered between 18 and 24 months, that leaves 14 to 20 months in which the animals can get antibiotics. We asked the USDA whether this label was approved, and it responded as follows:

“Producers/Companies are allowed to make the claim ‘raised without antibiotics 120 days prior to finish’ without any further explanation. This tells the consumer that the animals may have received antibiotics prior to 120 days … before slaughter.”

We’re concerned, however, that consumers could be confused by this label, especially if they didn’t have access to the fine print on the company website while making their purchase at the meat counter. We urge USDA to approve claims made on products that are clear and comprehensible to the consumer, especially where consumers may be misled to believe that a meat product is raised without antibiotics.

We appreciate your attention and consideration to the matter and welcome any questions to help further your efforts to ensure truthful and meaningful no antibiotics claims in the market.

 

Sincerely,

Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D.

Director, Consumer Safety and Sustainability

 

cc: Elizabeth Hagen

FSIS/USDA

 

UPDATE (6/11/12) :  To read the USDA’s response to this letter, please click here