Speak Up is a series of blogs where CommonGround volunteers from all over the U.S. speak up to answer questions from consumers.
We live in a world where the label reigns supreme. Whether it is a label identifying a particular brand or a label found on food products alluding to how it was grown or raised, we are trained to make purchasing decisions based on marketing claims and opinions from our family, friends and sometimes people we don’t even know.
While the term ‘antibiotic-free’ can be found on many food items in the grocery store, the latest Panera commercial got us thinking about how difficult it may be for shoppers today to sift through the facts when making food choices. After hearing the antibiotic-free message in the commercial, we did a little digging to find out the facts behind food labels that address antibiotics.
By law, farmers and ranchers must adhere to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service standards when using antibiotics to treat their livestock. These standards state that no meat sold in the United States is allowed to contain antibiotic residues that violate FDA standards.
Farmers must keep detailed records if they administer antibiotics to their livestock. Medication records are kept on file for at least 12 months following the marketing of any medicated livestock. This process allows the farmers to determine when the antibiotics will be out of the animal’s system so they can be sent to market.
While twelve months is the rule, many farmers keep records much longer. Joan Ruskamp, a CommonGround Nebraska volunteer and cattle feeder, says she keeps records for at least three years.
Be sure to know the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements for food labels. For labels about antibiotics, the USDA states claims such as “no antibiotics added” may only be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the farmer that proves that the animals were raised without antibiotics. 3
But what about other claims, like antibiotic-free?
Last year, Food Safety News decoded multiple labels that denote the use of antibiotics in livestock. Surprisingly, the findings proved many labels are not verified by USDA. Savvy shoppers should know to look for the USDA-verified symbol when shopping and to watch out for these unapproved antibiotic labels: