Last year, it was all about poultry: Major fast-food companies like McDonald’s announced that they would move away from chicken raised with antibiotics, and numerous retailers said they would switch over to cage-free eggs. The changes could redefine the status quo for raising poultry in the U.S., but in addition to pointing out that antibiotic- and cage-fee isn’t the same as humane treatment of livestock, animal rights groups had one overarching question: Why only chickens?
There were signs that the trend, as it were, could extend to other livestock too. Unlike its competitors, Subway put forth an ambitious plan to remove antibiotics from all of its meat supply chains (albeit over a very long timeline), Hormel acquired Applegate Farms, and Perdue Farms bought the pioneering “good meat” company Niman Ranch in September.
Now, another considerable step is being taken toward producing antibiotic-free pork on a large scale. Earlier this week, Tyson introduced a new label, Open Prairie Natural Pork, which will rely on meat from pigs raised without antibiotics, hormones, or the use of gestation crates. The company—which announced its own move away from antibiotics for poultry last year, and hinted at an expansion to other livestock—will likely be the country’s leading producer of antibiotic-free pork.
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“We developed this brand to meet the growing demand for natural pork, while allowing retailers to diversify their product mix and give them a competitive edge,” Ozlem Worpel, a Tyson brand manager, told the trade publication Meat & Poultry.
While the industry has long argued that it simply cannot raise animals without antibiotics—going so far as to say that doing so would be cruel or inhumane, as sick animals could die—changes in consumer behavior are pushing companies like Perdue and Tyson to figure out how to meet demand. Last year, 25 percent of Americans said they are seeking out antibiotic-free meat more often than they did in 2014, according to a survey published by Consumer Reports in November.
While packaged meat products can harbor the antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that the overuse of drugs in both agriculture and human medicine have resulted in—and improperly preparing that meat can result in people becoming sick—the true risk is more systemic. In short, our public health relies heavily on antibiotics, and the drugs are becoming increasingly ineffective. But despite rising concerns that we’re approaching the end of the antibiotic era as drugs become less effective at treating resistant bacteria, the agriculture industry is still buying huge amounts of drugs—32.6 million pounds in 2013—many of which are also used in human medicine. And voluntary control measures put in place by the FDA in 2013 have thus far proved ineffective at reducing the use of antibiotics by the agriculture industry in any meaningful way.
Could consumer demand succeed in changing a dangerous, entrenched status quo where regulation has failed? According to Quartz’s estimates, Tyson could be producing as many as 1 million antibiotic-free hogs annually. That’s more than the 500,000 to 750,000 pasture-raised pigs Iowa State University estimated were on farms back in 2006 (more recent data is not available)—but it remains just a fraction of the some 68 million hogs and pigs being raised across the U.S.