In 1999, Steve Ells wondered why his restaurants' carnitas weren't selling, so he went to his pork supplier.
There, the Chipotle Mexican Grill founder discovered a concentrated animal-feeding operation—a commercial farm that relied on antibiotics in animal feed as a way to keep the swine healthy in cramped, dirty conditions. Horrified by what he saw, he opted to look elsewhere for the company's pork.
After reading "The Lost Taste of Pork," which discusses the unpleasant flavor of mass-produced meat, Ells visited a Niman Ranch farm, which raised animals in more open spaces and treated them with fewer drugs.
Since then, Chipotle, an international restaurant chain that specializes in tacos and burritos, has grown, and now has more than 1,600 restaurants, more than 45,000 employees, and a net income of $278 million. It serves more antibiotic-free meat than any other restaurant.
And other businesses are following suit.
While better taste was the driving factor for Chipotle's choice of meat, reducing antibiotic use in agriculture can also have a profound effect on the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Each year, about 30 million pounds of antibiotics are given to animals meant for human consumption. Their routine administration began as a way to promote growth, but continues today for disease prevention among herds and flocks. And decades of the practice have contributed to the evolution of bacteria that sicken millions and kill thousands of Americans every year.
The majority of meat consumed in the U.S. comes from subsidized, large-scale farming operations, but segments of American farming have returned to their roots.
The changing tide of consumer demand for humane and healthy food—raised on smaller-scale farms using traditional methods—is having positive spillover effects on antibiotic resistance.
But making the kind of change that occurred 15 years ago in countries like Denmark— which placed a blanket ban on the use of antibiotics in healthy animals—is regularly opposed by American meat producers, citing increased costs and lost jobs.
Jonathan Kaplan, food and agriculture program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said antibiotic use in farming needs to be strictly regulated. He believes meaningful change in American agriculture is possible.
"We like to say that regulation can be the mother of invention. Industry howls and says it'll cost too much and we'll all go bankrupt," he said. "Regulations are adopted and then—boom!—people think of creative ways to slash costs and make it work. We think that's going to happen."
High Levels of Harmful Bacteria Appear in Retail Meat
Samples taken from grocery stores reveal alarming rates of multidrug-resistant bacteria.
Since the 1950s, meat producers have been allowed to feed livestock small doses of antimicrobial agents, including antibiotics, because these help bulk up the animals and can help prevent common diseases. The practice is one of many factors known to contribute to antibiotic resistance.
The more often bacteria are exposed to low doses of antibiotics, the more chances they have to evolve around them. As they develop on farms, they enter the food supply through meat and even through vegetables that were fertilized with manure from animals that were given multiple courses of antibiotics throughout their lives.
And those bugs are being brought into your grocery store. Numerous government and academic studies have shown that drug-resistant bacteria—including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Salmonella—are present in up to half of raw meat sold in our markets.
The rate at which antibiotic-resistant bacteria is increasing in our food is alarmingly high. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced drug-resistant bacterial contamination in 81 percent of raw ground turkey, 69 percent of raw pork chops, 55 percent of raw ground beef, and 39 percent of raw chicken sampled in grocery stores.
One of the most recent drug-resistant Salmonella outbreaks in food was from chicken produced by Foster Farms.
In total, 574 people, in 23 states and Puerto Rico, were sickened, and almost 40 percent of them required hospitalization. Eighty percent of those people reported having eaten Foster Farms chicken, and 82 percent said they had cooked the chicken at home.
Using epidemiologic, traceback, and laboratory research on samples from the patients' homes and chicken at Foster Farms facilities, investigators found the Salmonella Heidelberg had originated from Foster Farms.
"While it is not unusual for raw poultry from any producer to have Salmonella bacteria, it is uncommon to have multidrug-resistant Salmonella bacteria," the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated after Foster Farms recalled some of its chicken in October.
Foster Farms immediately began "implementing process enhancements," which the CDC states "may stimulate nationwide adoption of more stringent standards by other producers."
Consumers Demand More Antibiotic-Free Meat
Many big-name retailers and restaurants are switching to drug-free options.
While some companies in agribusiness are reluctant to change, others are setting themselves apart from the competition by choosing to use beef, pork, and poultry raised without the routine use of low-dose antibiotics in feed and water. They're doing this independently to meet consumer demand.
An informed public, concerned with what's being added to food, continues to shape what Americans eat.
In a Consumer Reports poll, 86 percent of the U.S. consumers surveyed indicated they want meat raised without antibiotics in their local supermarket.
As of 2006, 44 percent of American chicken producers had phased out the routine use of antibiotics for growth promotion or disease prevention, and that number continues to grow. Though many farms are changing, factory-style farming still produces the majority of meat sold in the U.S.
The U.S. poultry industry is dominated by contract growing, in which growers are told exactly what to feed the animals, said Maria Bowman, an economics fellow with the NRDC who studies the economic impact of curbing antibiotic overuse in agriculture. Integrators such as Tyson and Foster Farms dictate how the birds should be raised and fed, and provide the feed to growers. Pork is similar, but in cattle rearing, the rancher has greater discretion.
Because much of modern farming doesn't allow farmers' discretion in what to feed their animals, the supply chain for major retailers was once limited. But that, too, is changing.
After listening to its customers, Trader Joe's, a California-based grocery chain with 418 locations, now offers antibiotic-free versions of several meats, including chicken, beef, lamb, pork, and turkey products. Some are organic and antibiotic free, while others are simply antibiotic free.
Other retailers that offer meats raised free of antibiotics include Whole Foods, Kroger, Costco, Safeway, Giant, Hannaford, Shaw's, Stop & Shop, Publix, and Jewel-Osco. Even Walmart, America's largest retailer, which historically hadn't offered such options, now carries Applegate meats, which are both organic and antibiotic free.
Chick-fil-A, the nation's chicken-and-waffle king, has vowed to phase out the use of antibiotic-treated chicken within the next five years.
Many businesses are incorporating their antibiotics stance into their marketing strategies as they discover that their customers want beef free of all the other bull.
"It can be done, and it does work," Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, told Healthline, adding that there are additional health benefits from better quality meat. "There's a lot of hidden costs in cheap food."
Niman Ranch, Chipotle's supplier, made its name in the industry for humane treatment of animals without the use of antibiotics, except in individual cases. Niman now works with more than 600 farms.
Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman left the company in 2007 after alleging that its core values had changed to include the use of antimicrobial agents. Company leadership says their use is in good practice, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods also offer their own antibiotic-free brands of chicken. But in 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) discovered that Tyson routinely gave antibiotics to chicken, despite its "raised without antibiotics" claim.
While change is happening, it's still on a small scale. Antibiotic-free chicken accounts for only 9 percent of the $10 billion worth of fresh chicken sold in the U.S. in 2013, according to NPR.
Bowman says costs and profits are the biggest motives for agribusinesses to push back against change.
"You have huge political lobbies lined up against any kind of progress on this issue, even though the scientific community has landed on the agreement that this is a health risk," she said.
Change in the Face of Rising Costs
Switching to farming without high amounts of antibiotics translates into 'pennies on the pound.'
Those who oppose legislation that would limit the use of antibiotics to individual sick animals often cite the costs associated with it, especially loss of production if more animals die from disease.
Douglas Call, a professor of molecular epidemiology at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University, argues that restricting antibiotic use would squeeze smaller farmers out of the market.
"If prices increase enough, consumers could favor cheaper imported foods for which we have limited regulatory oversight. This would also result in job losses for the U.S.," he wrote in a guest opinion for The Seattle Times.
And the additional cost of production would pass down to the consumer. That was the case with Chipotle. The Niman Ranch meat cost more, so Chipotle raised its prices.
For steak and chicken, the cost went up $0.25 per burrito or three-taco order. Those new carnitas? That's $1 extra.
"Interestingly, when the price went up, we started selling twice as much," Arnold said.
Avinash Kar, a health attorney with the NRDC who has fought for the limited use of antibiotics in livestock, said research shows that changing current practices would result in price increases of 2 to 4 percent for chicken and 3 to 5 percent for pork.
"That's pennies on the pound, which is essentially what we're talking about," he told Healthline. "Even today, there's antibiotic-free chicken that's available in the marketplace that is comparable to your average chicken in the marketplace."
In March of 2012, chicken breasts averaged $3.17 per pound. Retailers then were selling antibiotic-free chicken for as little as $1.99 a pound, while Trader Joe's was selling antibiotic-free chicken drumsticks for $1.29 a pound.
Some animals raised for meat without antibiotics are also cage-free, organic, or grass-fed, which may increase the cost to the consumer.
Denmark's Antibiotics Ban Fails to Sway U.S. Trade Groups
The country’s ban on routine antibiotic use in livestock has sparked political debate in the U.S.
Denmark saw the potential harms of untreatable bacterial infections, so lawmakers enacted strict regulation on its agriculture industry. Danes raise about the same amount of pork as Iowa, the U.S.'s largest pork producer, so America watched their experiment with great interest.
The Danes outlawed administering antibiotics for growth promotion in broiler chickens and adult pigs in 1998, and in young pigs in 1999. Antimicrobial drugs can be used only with a prescription from a veterinarian who has a valid vet-client-patient relationship. Also, to prevent conflicts of interest, vets cannot profit from the sale of antibiotics.
Minor changes—cleaner housing, improved ventilation, more space for the animals, and other practices—resulted in "a major reduction in antimicrobial resistance," according to the Danish Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries.
There wasn't, however, enough data for the World Health Organization to determine the ban's effect on antibiotic resistance in humans.
Danish veterinary authorities concluded, more than a decade after enacting the ban, that the law reduced antibiotic consumption by 50 percent without compromising animal health. In 2003, the added cost for animal producers was just $1.09 per pig, and the country's economy decreased only 0.03 percent.
"Overall, the ban phasing out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics for growth promotion has not caused any negative impact on food animal production in Denmark," a PEW report concluded. "In fact, the industry's productivity has increased as well as its output."
Some in the U.S. agriculture industry, including the Animal Health Institute— the trade group for companies that produce antibiotics for animals—say the Danish ban hasn't achieved its desired effect and has had unintended consequences.
Rep. John Shimkus, the ranking Republican in the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, echoed the prevailing sentiments in agriculture: the impact on jobs. He said the potential for an FDA ban on the use of antibiotics in livestock was rooted in "political posturing and unproven theories."
"In no case has any country demonstrated a direct human health benefit following prohibition of the specific uses of antibiotics now targeted by FDA," Shimkus told Ag Minute, a weekly radio address released by the House Agriculture Committee Republicans. "FDA needs to make decisions based on sound science, not on unproven theories. That science does not exist today."
In 2009, a U.S. agricultural delegation visited Denmark when legislation similar to the Danes' was introduced in the U.S. The delegation reported that the Danish experiment had failed.
Aware of the delegation's claims, Jan Mousing, then chief veterinary officer of Denmark, sent a letter to members of the U.S. Congress, stating "the pharmaceutical and agricultural industry in the USA is currently distributing information regarding the alleged damaging consequences to the farming industry of the European (including the Danish) restrictions on the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics for growth promotion."
Mousing said the anti-ban information distributed by trade groups created a "biased picture … founded on a partial selection of the data in order to paint a scientifically unjust picture of the situation."
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), a microbiologist by training, has introduced legislation similar to Denmark's at every congressional session since 2007.
"Denmark was absolutely effective," she told Healthline. "I have never once in all my years had a government contradict an American delegation about anything. That's pretty interesting, isn't it? And they proved it, for crying out loud. And they saved a ton of money in doing it."
Her bill, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), has the support of the Consumers Union, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and about 450 other health organizations.
Chipotle's Ells testified before Congress in 2009 in favor of PAMTA, calling it "an important step in driving the kind of change we have chosen to work toward for the last decade, but that too many others have ignored."
The bill has never so much as had a hearing in its respective subcommittee.
The next installment of this series explores the politics of antibiotic use in the U.S., including reasons PAMTA has not passed, despite support from the medical community and local governments.
Continue to the next article »
About the Author:
Brian Krans is an award-winning investigative reporter and former Senior Writer at Healthline.com. He was part of the two-person team that launched Healthline News in January 2013. Since then, his work has been featured on Yahoo! News, the Huffington Post, Fox News and other outlets.
Prior to coming to Healthline, Brian was a staff writer at the Rock Island Argus and The Dispatch newspapers where he covered crime, government, politics, and other beats. His journalism experience has taken him to the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast and into the U.S. Capitol while Congress was in session. He is a graduate of Winona State University, which has named a journalism award after him.
Besides his reporting, Brian is the author of three novels. He is currently touring the country to promote his latest book, "Assault Rifles & Pedophiles: An American Love Story." When not traveling, he lives in Oakland, Calif. He has a dog named Friday.