We have had a great deal of discussion lately on meat raised without antibiotics. Is it healthier product? Does it taste better? Is it more tender?
In over 20 years of food safety research, I have seen quite a few antibiotic free (ABF) animals, including the famous pigs in Denmark, where they banned preventive and growth promoting antibiotics for pigs in 2000 (see a future blog). While working in the processing plant, I could often tell when ABF pigs were coming down the line. The animals from the ABF farms usually appeared somewhat unthrifty. Often there was less uniformity in carcass size and more “issues,” as one USDA inspector said to me. In one study we found 2.7% of ABF pigs with abscesses in their heads compared to 0.7% in “conventional” pigs.
So what does this mean for the consumer?
Many think that conventional animals have antibiotics in the meat, officially called a residue. However, animals must undergo strict withdrawal periods prior to slaughter to ensure no illegal residues remain at processing. Farmers who sell meat with illegal residues are penalized. (Code of Federal Regulations). Results from the National Residue Program show virtually all U.S. meat has no traces of antibiotics left in it. So it is “all” antibiotic free. Therefore, since the established antibiotic residue tolerance levels are both safe and monitored, there is no increased public health risk from antibiotics in the meat.
Next is the question of antibiotic resistance due to on-farm antimicrobial use. This is a significant concern. The use of antibiotics in humans or animals will usually select for some resistant bacterial populations. FDA has taken actions to stop those on-farm practices it perceives as posing a human health risk (more on that in a future blog). However, as a general practice, the use of preventive antibiotics, even when given to the entire barn, has not been proven to pose a significant risk to humans. As I previously reported, all peer-reviewed risk assessments articles to date have shown no significant risk to public health from on farm use of antibiotics.
In fact, ABF reared animals may pose a greater risk to human health. Pathogens are a common, unavoidable part of any environment. Disease prevention is important for keeping animals healthy in such an environment. In the absence of effective prevention, animals face greater health challenges that may lead to marginally healthy animals or subclinical illness. My research has shown that subclinical illness is not outwardly obvious to the producer or inspector, but puts animals at risk for carrying increased levels of bacteria responsible for foodborne illness, such as Campylobacter and Salmonella.
Lastly, does ABF meat taste better, as the Panera advertisement claims? I don’t see how, as conventional meat has no antibiotics left in it once the animals get to market. Is ABF meat more tender? I doubt it, as those animals may actually be older. You see chronic disease may slow down their growth rate. So it takes longer to get animals to market weight.
So is antibiotic free really healthier or better than conventional? I say the only difference is price.