The Pork Industry’s Stance on Antibiotics Totally Misses the Point

It’s as if they’ve never heard of superbugs.

<a href="http://www.gettyimages.com/license/484521569">t-lorien</a>/Getty Images

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Last week, fast-food poultry giant KFC joined McDonald’s, Chipotle, Panera Bread, and 11 other major chains in promising not to serve poultry raised with antibiotics. The announcement came after years of pressure from consumers and advocacy groups concerned about the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Because of the move, by next year, more than half of the chicken we eat in the United States will likely be free of antibiotics.

“Obviously they’re trying to change the subject,” one expert said of the Pork Council’s statement.

That’s a big deal: As my colleague Tom Philpott has reported, nearly two-thirds of all the antibiotics in the United States go to agriculture. Antibiotic use in agriculture increased by 22 percent from 2009 to 2014. The rampant overuse on farms means that bacteria adapt, become resistant, and can breed superbugs that pose a global threat to human health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called antibiotic resistance “one of the world’s most pressing health concerns.” Last fall, an elderly woman in Nevada was the first person to die of a strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae that resisted “all available antimicrobial drugs.”

Now that chicken sellers are flocking away from antibiotics, advocacy groups have set their sights on another item on Americans’ dinner plates: pork. The Natural Resources Defense Council took the lead in putting pressure on the chicken industry for about three years—and the organization is now mobilizing to do the same with others. The campaign is timely: Late last year, researchers found bacteria on a hog farm in the United States that was resistant to carbapenems, antibiotics known as the “last line of defense.” A resistant strain of E. coli was found in pigs in China, where half the world’s hogs reside, the year before.

Pork producers, meanwhile, insist there’s not much to worry about. In a statement last week, the National Pork Producers Council told Politico’s Morning Ag, “It’s important not to be misled by activist claims that antibiotic use in animal care results in its presence in consumed meat. When they are used, US pork producers stop giving antibiotics to animals for a set period of time prior to marketing so consumers don’t have to worry about antibiotics in their meat.”

But Erik Olson, director of health and environmental programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out that the pork industry seems to be missing the point: Health officials aren’t as worried about traces of antibiotics in the meat as they are about superbugs.

“Obviously they’re trying to change the subject,” Olson said of the Pork Council’s statement.

Olson argues that ridding hog farms of antibiotics wouldn’t be reinventing the wheel. Producers in Denmark have phased out their use, as have a few in the United States. Niman Ranch, formerly owned by meat entrepreneur Bill Niman and now owned by Perdue, doesn’t use antibiotics at all.* (Tom Philpott wrote about Perdue’s endeavor to raise antibiotic-free chicken.)

Olson also points out that antibiotic-raised meat is swiftly falling out of fashion. A recent marketing survey found that 66 percent of consumers ranked a “no added antibiotics” label as a “very important” factor in their food-buying decisions. “The writing is on the wall for the industry,” said Olson. “This is what consumers are demanding.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Niman Ranch’s use of antibiotics. The company never uses antibiotics.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest