A still from a new video about antibiotics in farm animals from FixFood. Click or scroll down to watch.

Despite a high-profile lawsuit, a recent court order, and a much-hyped set of voluntary rules, it’s still not clear that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to do anything of substance to stop meat producers from using antibiotics on a massive — and massively destructive — scale. It has been three decades since the FDA first identified the use of these drugs in livestock production as a problem. But they’re still mulling it over, apparently. Thinking long and hard.

While they think, 80 percent of all the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are being used on animals to spur growth and compensate for crowded, dirty conditions. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria or “superbugs” continue to show up in food and cause infections in tens of thousands of people every year (99,000 people died of hospital-acquired infections in 2002, the most recent year for which data are available).

It’s no coincidence then that Meat Without Drugs, the campaign launched today by Consumers Union, doesn’t target the FDA or any government agency, for that matter. Instead, the advocacy group, which has been pushing for a ban on antibiotics in agriculture since the late 1970s, is targeting grocery stores.

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After all, grocery chains are a little like small nations, aren’t they? (Maybe that’s why the checker at Kroger always wants to see your passport.) And — truth be told — even if half of those chains were to stop carrying antibiotic-laden meat, the thinking goes, most producers would be motivated (read: forced) to change their practices.

“After three decades, you could say we’re a little frustrated with the rate of change at FDA,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. “It’s discouraging to see that the industry lobbies have prevented the agency from acting.” (And by that she means both the meat industry and the pharmaceutical industry. After all, sales of so-called “animal health products” to agricultural operations were already worth a total of $3.3 billion a year by 1995.) And so, Halloran says, they’re trying another entry point — supermarkets.

In a companion report released today called Meat On Drugs: The overuse of antibiotics in food animals and what supermarkets and consumers can do to stop it” [PDF], the Consumers Union looked at the cost, labeling, and availability of antibiotic-free meat in grocery stores and combined that data with a consumer survey.

The group’s “secret shoppers” recorded information about 1,100 products (including 200 organic ones) and identified Whole Foods as the only grocery store that currently carries solely antibiotic-free meat. Trader Joe’s ranked second, with a fairly wide selection of options. Now, with the Meat Without Drugs campaign, the Consumers Union is channeling online signatures to Trader Joe’s asking them to follow in Whole Foods’ footsteps and go cold turkey with their turkey. (And pork, beef, and chicken.)

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“It could make a huge a difference,” says Halloran. “They’re a national chain with stores in 30 states. People already look to them for some sensitivity on social concerns.”

The price is right

“Farmers say they have to feed the drugs to animals to keep them healthy and meet America’s growing appetite for cheap meat,” a recent USA Today article reads.

Conventional producers are fond of talking about how taking the antibiotics out of the equation will cause the retail price of meat to skyrocket. And while having less cheap meat may not be such a bad thing (many would rather eat less meat and eat better meat, as author and rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman likes to suggest), the Consumers Union found that most consumers don’t actually have to choose between antibiotic-free and affordable.

The report points a 2001 study funded in part by the National Pork Producers Council. It found that “if antibiotics were no longer added to feed for hogs in the U.S., the cost of producing a 250-pound hog would most likely rise by $5.24. The increased cost to the consumer would be around 5 cents per pound. Given average pork consumption, that amounts to $2.75 per person per year.” They also found that antibiotic-free poultry farming was just as likely to cost the farmers less than farming with antibiotics does.

The prices they recorded in grocery stores suggested a similar reality. The report reads:

The Consumer Reports shoppers gathered data on the prices of “no antibiotics” products, including organic meat and poultry, at the 119 stores that carried them. Based on this data, it appears that “no antibiotics” meat and poultry is not as costly as many might assume. While shoppers found beef products priced up to $19.99 per pound for organic steak, virtually all of the “no antibiotics” chicken, turkey, and pork products found in the stores were priced under $10 per pound. Such chicken could be had at three chains — Trader Joe’s, Jewel-Osco, and Publix — for as little as $1.29 per pound. Moderately priced “no antibiotics” products (under $5 per pound) were available at almost every chain that carried such meat.

This is good news for eaters, many of whom want better access to this meat. Around one-quarter of the people Consumers Union surveyed said meat raised without antibiotics was not available at their supermarket, while 82 percent of those said they would buy it if it were. And a full 86 percent of the shoppers they talked to think it should be available in supermarkets.

Consumers Union also found a huge range of labels, from “natural” to “grass-fed” to “no antibiotic residue” and “never given antibiotics.” Halloran thinks that inconsistency might pose an obstacle down the road when it comes to clear demands from consumers.

“We think the USDA should have one term and post the definition. And then have some mechanism for enforcing it,” she says.

Of course, ever since the FDA suggested this April that antibiotics should not be used to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency in livestock, but rather to “prevent, control or treat illnesses in food-producing animals under the supervision of a veterinarian,” there has been much more gray area in terms of exactly what practices should warrant a label.

“What we hear is that most antibiotics are now used to ‘prevent disease,’” says Halloran. “But preventative use, wholesale, in the water for a thousand chickens at once … well, it still needs to stop. Often in the past antibiotic use has served both purposes. They can easily say that they’re using it for disease prevention. And then — oh, by the way — as a nice side effect it also helps the animals grow bigger.”

But to truly phase out antibiotics, Halloran adds, farmers have to change their other husbandry practices. “What we know from farms in Europe, where they have scaled back on the drugs considerably, is that you have to pay much more attention to sanitation; you clean the facilities thoroughly, and do a lot more to keep disease from entering.” In other words, the kinds of changes to animal agriculture that most consumers would like to see anyway.

Here’s a related video from Robert Kenner, director of Food, Inc., and co-founder of the website, FixFood. (And yes, that’s Bill Paxton narrating.)