As our Farm Animal Quality Standards Coordinator, Liz focuses intently on animal welfare. She works with farmers and ranchers, visiting farms all over the country and taking some awesome photos along the way.
When people ask me what’s different about the meat at Whole Foods Market, the first thing I say is: No antibiotics, ever! There are a lot of other differences but I always start the conversation with no antibiotics.
For a lot of us, we think about taking antibiotics when we are sick. That’s called therapeutic use. The antibiotic use in meat production is a bit different.
Yes, sometimes antibiotics are used to treat illness or infection (more on that later), but a bigger issue is the practice of adding small daily doses of antibiotics to animal feed or water. This is called subtherapeutic use.
Subtherapeutic use started in livestock production because the animals live in confined areas close to many more animals than they would be with in their natural environment. In these conditions, it is more likely that animals could get sick, so they are given antibiotics on a daily basis as a prevention tool.
And somewhere along the way, they discovered that this ongoing use of antibiotics also promoted faster growth in the animals.
Getting animals to market weight faster was a benefit to farmers and ranchers but was it good for the animals? Was it good for humans?
There’s growing consumer concern about antibiotic resistance, which occurs when microorganisms become accustomed to a particular antibiotic and build resistance to its effect. If humans become infected with one of these super microorganisms, the resulting infections or diseases can be very difficult to treat because antibiotics are largely ineffective against them.
Last year, after several years of study, the FDA published guidance asking drug companies to voluntarily remove growth promotion from their labels on antibiotics, which they did. If a use is not listed on the label, a veterinary prescription must be issued for that specific use. That means widespread subtherapeutic antibiotics in animal production systems will be greatly reduced. They are still allowed for disease prevention, but this is a significant step.
No Antibiotics, EVER at Whole Foods Market
It’s encouraging that the FDA has begun to address the concerns our customers expressed when we first began to sell meat in our stores.
Back in 1981, we banned subtherapeutic antibiotics in the animals raised for our meat. That’s 34 years ago! And we didn’t just make the decision and let our suppliers sort out the consequences on their own. We worked hard to help them develop farm animal raising practices that reduced the need for antibiotics while still insuring healthy animals.
They adopted practices such as giving the animals more room, keeping their living areas cleaner, allowing more access to the outdoors and to pasture, and feeding them a diet that does not allow the use of any animal byproducts.They also monitor the health of their animals much more carefully and insure that if there are any health issues, they are dealt with immediately.
For a while, we allowed the use of antibiotics to treat sick or injured animals. But in 2002 we banned all uses of antibiotics. That doesn’t mean sick animals suffer. If an animal becomes ill or is injured, we require that the animal be treated and then removed from our meat supply.
I remember talking to one rancher who shared with me that he was quite worried when we made the change to no antibiotics, ever. He knew he could no longer rely on antibiotics for quick fixes. But now he watches for any indication that something is brewing and when he notices a change in the animal’s behavior, he starts an alternative remedy protocol right away. All in all, he says it has made him a much better rancher. He’s more in tune with his animals and they all — the animals and the rancher — are better off for it.
So, the next time someone asks you what’s different about the meat at Whole Foods Market, you can tell them about the farmers and ranchers who go the extra mile to raise their animals without depending on antibiotics for any use.
What’s important to you when purchasing meat?