Foster Farms’ announcement last week that it would be dropping the use of antibiotics in two new product lines was expected. The Livingston, CA – based company has been plagued with quality control problems over the past few years that critics, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, have suggested are the result of using human antibiotics in its livestock. So it’s no surprise that the 76 year-old company would develop its own line of organic and antibiotic-free poultry. It just makes sense.
Still, it is often interesting when the media reinterprets the message a press release is intended to impart. Foster Farms’ fanfare about new product releases that include organically raised chickens has so far been broadly ignored by the media, with the exception of the Merced Sun Star, which is published a short drive from Livingston. The company’s claim of becoming the “West Coast leader in antibiotic-free chicken” seems to have gone unnoticed as well. Geography and size count, but only it seems, when they have something to say about a company’s commercial accomplishment.
Instead, recent headlines have chosen to read the news as many consumers would: Foster Farms, which once defended the value of using of antibiotics in its livestock, is dropping its fight.
And it isn’t the first company to give up its endorsement of antimicrobial therapy. In August 2014, Purdue Farms announced that it would be scaling back the use of human antibiotics in poultry. Eight months later, in April 2015, Tyson Foods announced a soft target date of September 2017 for ending its antibiotic regimen. Its announcement came after salmonella Heidelberg had been detected in its products.
At least two of the meat producers have said their changes are the result of the Federal Drug Administration’s voluntary guidelines of 2013, which called for an end to prophylactic antibiotic regimens. But it is reasonable to assume that consumer opinion and consumer trends had a large part in those decisions as well. According to the NRDC, sales of antibiotic-free meats (including beef, pork and turkey) jumped 25 percent in 2010, 2011 and 2012, despite the fact that U.S. consumption of all four types of meat was down. And as of 2013, says research group IRI, antibiotic-free chicken represented almost 10 percent national chicken sales.
The FDA has been roundly criticized for not insisting on a more rapid change in antibiotic use, especially in light of information it has possessed since the 1970s suggesting that the use of such substances in livestock was harmful to humans. According to 2012, data, tetracyclines – the medication responsible for what the FDA commissioner Donald Kennedy predicted in 1977 would one day become a threat to the world’s “linked ecosystem” – now amounts to more than 40 percent of the 31 million pounds of antibiotics fed to livestock in the U.S.
The FDA said in 2013, when it appealed to manufacturers to change the amount of antibiotics it gave livestock that it was calling for industry cooperation, rather than enforcing adherence because it “was the fastest, most efficient way to make these changes.” One wonders if that is legal issues that the FDA was considering at the time of that statement, rather than procedural. In 2001, the USDA was prohibited by the courts from shutting down a plant in Texas after it had been failed salmonella testing in its facilities for the third time.
It seems unbelievable that a federal agency charged with protecting public health could actually have to ponder the legal ramifications of the steps it takes to enforcement. But these days, the laws and strategies to protecting America’s food basket seem to have become just as complicated and confusing as picking out the makings for tomorrow’s dinner.