THE BLOG
04/17/2014 11:28 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2014

Supply And Demand: Changing The Economics of Antibiotic-free Meat

During spring, many Americans celebrate holidays and observances with a special meal where meat plays a major role: from corned beef on St. Paddy's Day to ham for Easter or brisket at Passover. And while we can debate on how to prepare these classics, we can all agree that we'd all be better off if the meat we eat wasn't raised on a steady diet of antibiotics.

With a meat industry addicted to drugs -- nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used on livestock each year -- the current government policy is a blast from the past: "Just say no." Well it didn't work then and it's not working now. The government agencies charged with protecting consumers have left us all open to a burgeoning human health crisis of antibiotic resistance by regulating the meat industry with "pleases and thank yous" instead of a "just do it."

Non-binding FDA guidance announced late last year "asks" the meat industry companies to use antibiotics only when necessary to keep animals healthy and only under the supervision of a veterinarian. Additionally, the agency is "requesting" cooperation from drug manufacturers to remove non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics (such as growth promotion) from drug labels. Cooperation with the new recommendations is strictly voluntary, and the pharmaceutical and animal agriculture industries have three years to work within the voluntary measures before the FDA evaluates the efficacy of the plan.

The FDA's recommendation does not address the use of antibiotics to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions that spread disease among livestock. Pharmaceutical and animal agriculture companies will most certainly use this "loophole" to circumvent the nontherapeutic uses recommendation so that they can continue to use antibiotics recklessly to maintain an unsustainable animal agriculture system they say is necessary to supply the meat that Americans are demanding.

Fortunately, that supply and demand situation is changing. Thanks to an increase in public awareness, Americans are demanding antibiotic-free meat. Antibiotics in animal agriculture isn't a niche topic, it's mainstream. Consumer Reports has covered the issue three times already and even Dr. Oz is on board. In fact, consumer knowledge could be the tipping point for this issue because every food company CEO knows there's nothing like the power of the pocket book. Families have the chance to vote three times a day with how they decide to spend their money on food, and those decisions have the clout to affect change.

Why else would companies like Chick-fil-A announce a move to antibiotic-free chicken?

As the founder and CEO of Applegate, I am proud to manage one of the country's leading brands of natural and organic meats. Not only have we grown in an industry that is otherwise flat, but we have also proven that you don't need to rely on antibiotics to produce affordable food on a large scale. While antibiotics should never be needed under ideal circumstances, we recognize that some animals will inevitably get sick and require treatment. With common-sense animal husbandry practices like space and cleanliness, less than one percent of the animals on our suppliers' farms get sick. But when they do get sick, livestock are treated with antibiotics and, after they recover, they reenter the supply chain for sale to a conventional producer. Using the drugs solely to treat illnesses -- and not to aid production -- is a special practice, but it should not be. Rather, it must be standard.

Some in the meat industry will say it can't be done. But it has been done already. In 1996, Denmark stopped allowing antibiotic use on farms except for the treatment and control of disease. Antibiotic use has been halved, resistance is down in animals and on meat, production is up and costs are stable. I visited the country last year and saw for myself how immense hog farms had managed to eliminate non-therapeutic antibiotic use without sacrificing efficiency and scale.

Even though a ban on antibiotic use in the United States similar to the one in Denmark would narrow the gap between my company's products and the conventional items sold by the industry titans, I would welcome it. I'm not scared of competition, but I am terrified of superbugs.

This blog post is part of a series by The United States Healthful Food Council, in recognition of the 2014 REAL Food Innovator Awards. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about The United States Healthful Food Council, click here