Eating Well: Shopping for Antibiotic-Free Meat
By Marian Burros, January 17, 2001

Evidence has been accumulating since the 1970's that the overuse of antibiotics for animals and humans is creating bacteria that are resistant to the drugs, making it more and more difficult to treat infections. A report released last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists says that the situation is even worse with animals than experts believed, and that antibiotic use may be 40 percent higher than drug industry figures.

Each time the subject of antibiotic resistance makes headlines, consumer demand increases for meat and poultry produced without the drugs. Most supermarkets offer antibiotic-free chicken and some offer beef as well, while natural food markets carry organic meat and poultry. Antibiotic-free meat and poultry generally cost at least $1 more a pound than conventional products.

But it is difficult to sort out the value of the antibiotic-free labels, the hazards of antibiotic residues, and the risks faced by humans from infection by drug-resistant bacteria.

The residues of antibiotics in meat should be of least concern to most people. They have no impact on human resistance, according to the experts. Residues in meat, poultry and milk are monitored by government agencies. There is general acknowledgment, even from the most vocal critics of the agencies, that while there are violations of the permissible residue levels in meat and poultry, they are not widespread and that milk is so carefully monitored that there are virtually no violations.

"Every tanker truck is checked for drug residues, and milk is rejected if it tests positive," said Caroline Smith deWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the consumer advocacy group.

It is more difficult to test each animal, and not quite as much care is taken with meat and poultry. There are a fair number of violations, said Fred Angulo, a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that is mainly of concern for people who have allergies to antibiotics.

Michael Osterholm, chairman of Ican Inc., an Internet-based infectious disease information company in Minneapolis, said he was not aware of any "data to show that allergies associated with antibiotics have been on the increase."

In other words, except for those who are allergic to certain antibiotics, most people don't need to worry about the consumption of antibiotic residues. And if food is cooked and handled properly, infection from antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals will be prevented.

"The reason to buy meat without antibiotics," said Dr. Stuart Levy, director of the Center of Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University Medical School, "is not because the antibiotics in the meat are transferred to the person but because of how the antibiotics increase the number of antibiotic- resistant bacteria."

That is also why experts advise against the use of antibiotics unless tests have confirmed that an infection is bacterial. Antibiotics, for example, cannot cure the flu because it is a viral infection. The misuse of antibiotics in humans remains an extremely serious problem.

In animals, antibiotics are not only used to treat illness, but also given to prevent infection and to promote growth.

Compelling evidence that the use of antibiotics in animals affects human resistance was laid out in the mid-1990's. The antibiotic fluoroquinolone was not used in poultry until 1995. In Minnesota, which keeps excellent public health records on food- borne disease, no resistance was reported in humans who were treated with fluoroquinolones for campylobacteriosis before that time. By 1997, Dr. Osterholm, who was then the epidemiologist for the Minnesota Health Department, said, "Levels of drug-resistant campylobacter in humans have gone up dramatically."

Because the Agriculture Department does not regulate the use of the antibiotic-free label, those who wish to avoid antibiotics are probably safest buying meat and poultry that bear a certified organic label. The Organic Trade Association's Web site,, offers a membership list.