Do you know what’s in your food?
That’s the question posed to me by Kevin Lo, CEO of FoodID, a company that tests food to ensure accountability on food labels. It’s a direct question and one that I feel confident answering. What’s in my food? Food, I reply. Nothing but food.
That’s what most people would say, Lo tells me. But he argues that there’s much more to it than that. To find out what’s really in our food, you have to look closer. Microscopically close.
Many consumers are doing just that. A recent survey found that two thirds of respondents think “antibiotic free” labels on meat are important and report that how an animal is raised is a major factor when deciding what meat they purchase. The same survey found that the majority of people are willing to pay more per pound to ensure the meat is antibiotic free. The disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, reason is that nearly half of respondents don’t always believe the claims on the labels they read.
In order to label their meat as “antibiotic free,” a producer must first apply for the designation with the USDA by signing an affidavit and submitting documentation that supports their claims. If approved by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), they are allowed to put that label on their meat, and they may be subjected to audits or testing in the future. If there’s a violation, FSIS works with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate.
It’s a tried and tested process, but it may be out of date for the current processing capacity. In 2019, the USDA was only able to test a few thousand animals for antibiotics. In contrast, there are billions of animals slaughtered every year. The USDA ends up testing less than one percent of all meat produced in the United States.
The USDA is testing for antibiotics, which is key. But that may not be enough, says Michael Hansen, senior scientist with Consumer Reports. “You have to know the limits of detection of the test you’re using,” Hansen says. He references experiments that have been done on milk, which were supposed to be free of antibiotic residues. When tested, residues showed up, although they were below the acceptable legal limit.
Hansen says that further testing often reveals antibiotic residues in milk, meat and poultry, but if you only looked at the FDA figures, you would think the tests showed zero results. “It’s really misleading, because people think that means there’s no antibiotics,” he says. “No, that means there’s none at the level you’re looking at.”
Why does this matter? Are antibiotics that bad? Yes and no. Antibiotics, in both animals and humans, are used to treat illnesses and can be used effectively. But the overuse of antibiotics means they’re becoming less effective and that has led to the emergence of superbugs, strains of bacteria or fungus that have developed resistance to common medications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are nearly three million drug-resistant infections every year.
The drug-resistant gene that can cause superbugs is often found on the cell structure called a plasmid, which is able to move from bacteria to bacteria and between species. That means that affected plasmids can transfer between animal and human cells as we ingest their meat, and they can encourage the development or growth of bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics that either we or the animals are taking.
Just like in humans, animals have common diseases and illnesses that are often treated with antibiotics. Gaby Maier, a veterinarian at UC Davis, notes that the 2017 Veterinary Feed Directive is a federal law that imposes limitations on how and when antibiotics can be used, and some states such as California have more stringent laws in place. The industry now understands that reducing the use of antibiotics and implementing changes in how the animals are raised is often the best way to treat disease.
Those changes might be as simple as taking extra care with nutrition. “For dairy calves, that also includes proper colostrum management, the first milk from their mother that is high in antibodies,” says Maier. She also encourages proper hygiene and biosafety, such as “disinfecting the navel of newborns, keeping rodents and other animals out of feed [and] quarantining new additions to the herd.”
In years past, there was an overreliance on antibiotics in meat production, not just to treat disease but to prevent it. In one example, Hansen notes that some producers will wean pigs from their mother early, to bring them up to market size faster. “By doing that, the piglets tend to have diarrhea,” Hansen says. “They’ll often be given cephalosporin to treat that, whereas work in Europe has shown [that] if you let the pigs stay with their mother for a longer period of time, those pigs need less antibiotics.”
And it’s because of all of this—the historic reliance on antibiotics and the rise of superbugs—that companies such as FoodID exist. “Labels need to start with integrity,” says Lo. “Everybody assumes that a product that has a label on it that says ‘no antibiotics ever’ is legitimate, even based on an affidavit. The reality is that in the industry, there’s really not a… good framework in place that can accommodate scientific testing and verification.”
Lo says the current USDA model is a start and likely worked well when the market was smaller decades ago. But now, companies such as FoodID work in addition to the federal agencies, testing products to a lower limit than the standard, for producers and retailers who want more proof.
One of those retailers is Cooks Venture, which currently sells chicken and beef and is tested regularly by FoodID to ensure the meat is antibiotic free. CEO Matt Wadiak says he decided to go beyond the USDA affidavit process because “we just simply know that when there’s money involved, there are corrupt individuals out there that lie.”
Wadiak says he wanted his customers to have documents to which they could point to keep everyone accountable. “We work with feed mills, we work with operators and there’s the element of human error,” says Wadiak. “What if somebody has delivered the wrong batch of feed? What if there’s a little bit of limestone for chicken seed because it helps them with digestion, and what if there’s something in it that was contaminated?” Wadiak says he wants his customers to know, scientifically, that the food they’re eating is what’s advertised on the packaging.
More regular antibiotic testing is a step forward for the companies and consumers that want them—and can afford them. But in order to make it an industry standard, Lo says there needs to be more buy-in from policy makers, who respond to pushes from consumers. “To what extent will consumers be educated enough to demand that they get the data behind those labels?” he says. “And to what extent is industry going to respond by incorporating and doing proper quality control and verification much like we assume exists already?”
So, should we all avoid eating meat with antibiotic residue? UC Davis’ Maier says customers don’t have to be on red alert all the time. “Personally, I do not buy only those labels, because I know that there are safeguards in place,” says Maier. She says the producers with whom she often works take the certifications and labelling very seriously and she generally trusts the federal regulations. “[Ranchers] want to produce a product that complies with regulations, and that is safe and wholesome,” she says.
Instead of not using antibiotics on animals at all, which Consumer Reports’ Hansen says wouldn’t be a practical or ethical way to deal with illness, perhaps a re-evaluation and reduction in the levels of antibiotics for which the USDA tests in food is needed. “A lot of the antibiotics out there, they were approved before we understood a lot of things at a molecular level. The levels that were considered safe back then are probably not safe now,” Hansen says.
Until that happens, companies such as FoodID are filling the gaps in the market. Everything we eat, plant or animal, had a life cycle before it hit our plate, and there’s a growing recognition that we should factor that cycle into our own diets. Then we’ll know what’s really in our food.