Antibiotic-free - Is this the next ethical food label?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

"While antibiotic use for growth promotion was banned in the EU in 2006, animals are still given antibiotics to prevent sickness although the whole herd is healthy," says Goyens.  Photo: BEUC
"While antibiotic use for growth promotion was banned in the EU in 2006, animals are still given antibiotics to prevent sickness although the whole herd is healthy," says Goyens. Photo: BEUC

Related tags Antibiotic resistance Meat

British meat has been found to contain MRSA and consumers are concerned. So would an antibiotic-free label reassure the public,  or are there already enough ethical food labels?

The use of antibiotics in farming is widespread - and rising. According to the Soil Association, almost 45% of antibiotics are used in farming in the UK, with an increase from 384 tonnes in 2008 to 420 tonnes in 2013.

And the consequences of using these drugs excessively is making its way from the farm to our forks. 

Last week pork products were pulled from British supermarket shelves after they were found to be infected with the MRSA superbug, while 2014 tests​ conducted by European Consumer rights group BEUC on raw meat sold in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands found that 72-98% of the poultry was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A Post-Antibiotic Age

 "In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated" ​2011 WHO director-general, Dr Margaret Chan

So with rising contamination rates leaving consumers increasingly concerned  - Mintel data found nearly half (47%) of Brits were either extremely or moderately concerned about antibiotics in farming - would food companies benefit from an antibiotic-free logo?

Another eco-label?

For Emma Rose from the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, a logo system was risky because it implied that meat from animals where antibiotics were routinely used was an acceptable alternative, and would continue to be sold.

“Introducing labels risks allowing the continuation of such practices, whilst turning meat products from animals raised without antibiotics into premium products - rather than the absolute norm,” ​she said.

She said that what was needed was a ban of routine, preventative antibiotic use across the board, and that critically important antibiotics should not be used for farming.

Food and beverage consultant Steve Osborn also warned that adding yet another eco-label could clutter an already busy arena and lead to confusion - or at worst a sort of ethical weariness.

“Organic meat products are generally free of antibiotics, so it would seem to be an unnecessary double logo exercise if not executed well.   It would be in danger of creating (…) confusion and disregard,” ​he told FoodNavigator.

 “It may be preferable to emphasise the ‘antibiotic free’ free nature of organic foods, and allow consumers wishing to make that informed choice, do so on the basis of a universally recognized, legislated and regulated certification, rather than a voluntary scheme.”

So what can be done?

The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics is calling on the EU to set targets for reducing farm antibiotic use by 50% by 2020 and by 80% by 2025. It also wants the EU to pass legislation to improve animal health and welfare, ensuring that farm animals are kept in less-intensive conditions thus removing the need for preventative antibiotics.

Some countries are already doing this on a voluntary level with government support. Danish pig producers cut antibiotic use by 13% between 2009 and 2013 - exceeding their own reduction targets and enjoying an boosted reputation for quality and safety.

Agriculture minister Dan Jørgensen said: “Denmark is a pioneer in working with antibiotic reduction. Other countries envy us the results we have achieved in co-operation with farmers, veterinarians and public authorities.

“Our joint effort has resulted in Danish foodstuffs having a unique international reputation. This creates food safety and consumer confidence and easy access to foreign markets.”

In the meantime, the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics is urging retailers and food companies​ to pay farmers fair prices that allow them to maintain high standards of animal welfare and minimise antibiotic usage.


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1 comment

Antibiotic Free Label

Posted by D. Wicker,

An "Antibiotic Free" label should not be allowed. Following mandated antibiotic administration procedures all meat products are free of added antibiotics.
Perhaps the label should be " Produced Without Using Antibiotics"to be more specific and to the point of addressing Consumer concerns. A label of this type would clear some of the confusion for the consumer!

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