There was a bit of a commotion in front of Trader Joe’s Union Square store in New York City this week. The Consumers Union held a press conference there for its Meat Without Drugs campaign. The group called on the national grocer to stop selling meat and poultry raised on antibiotics.
The campaign included more than a dozen consumer, environmental, and animal welfare organizations. They delivered a petition to Trader Joe’s signed by nearly 560,000 consumers. The event featured “Joe the Pig,” a costumed character wearing a Trader Joes-style Hawaiian shirt — carrying a sign that squealed “Get Me Off Drugs!”
The Meat Without Drugs campaign wants Trader Joe’s to help address a major public health crisis: the declining effectiveness of antibiotics caused by their overuse in meat and poultry production. According to the FDA, some 80 percent of all antibiotics are fed to animals. Trader Joe’s has so far declined to meet with Consumers Union.
“The rampant use of antibiotics on livestock is weakening the power of these critical medications to treat infectious diseases in people,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “We need meat without drugs to help ensure that the antibiotics we depend on will work when we need them most. We think supermarkets have a responsibility to help end this crisis.”
Antibiotics are used on livestock mostly to promote faster growth and prevent disease in crowded and unsanitary conditions.
Consumers Union argues that as a result of large scale use of antibiotics in livestock production, most of the bugs that are vulnerable to the antibiotics are eventually killed off. This leaves behind superbugs that are immune to one or more of the drugs. These superbugs spread on the farm and beyond, contributing to antibiotic resistance in our hospitals and communities.
Nearly 100,000 people die from infections they pick up in the hospital every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vast majority are caused by bacteria that have developed resistance to the antibiotics used to treat them. Ultimately, Consumers Union argues, superbugs are showing up on meat and poultry and causing serious illness and even death.
“The continued misuse of antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in industrial food animal production places enormous selective pressure on bacteria and adds to the alarming increase in antibiotic resistant pathogens that threaten human health and animal health,” said Robert S. Lawrence, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “Wholesale purchasers can help protect the health of the public by refusing to source meat and poultry from producers who continue to misuse antibiotics.”
Most grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s, carry some no-antibiotic meat and poultry. Meanwhile, Whole Foods is the only store that sells these products exclusively, according to a Consumer Reports investigation.
The campaign is targeting Trader Joe’s because it already offers some chicken and beef raised without antibiotics, although no pork. Eighty percent of its products are private label, which means it has direct control over its suppliers. In recent years, the grocer has made a commitment to other sustainable purchasing practices, such as only carrying eggs from cage-free hens and sourcing its private label products with non-genetically modified ingredients.
“The link between antibiotic resistance and the daily feeding of antibiotics to healthy animals for meat production is indisputable and is leading to a serious health crisis,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “This is why we’ve joined Consumers Union in calling on Trader Joe’s to do the right thing and protect public health by insisting that all of its meat and poultry be raised without antibiotics.”
Consumers Union argues that meat and poultry raised without antibiotics doesn’t have to be expensive. While prices for “no antibiotics administered” meat and poultry vary depending on the store, type of meat, and cut, Consumer Reports found that some prices were actually lower than the national average for meat raised with antibiotics. In fact, Trader Joe’s offers some of the lowest priced “no-antibiotic” chicken and beef products available.
“Knowing that antibiotics will protect our families when we need them is priceless,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and executive director of MomsRising. “Trader Joe’s can be a real leader on this critical public health issue by making a commitment to selling only meat raised without drugs.”