Antibiotic-Free Food Labels to Look For

More and more foods are being produced without the use of antibiotics. Here's how to find out if your food is truly antibiotic-free.

More antibiotics go into the food we eat than we take ourselves. About 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on farm animals. Most animals are dosed regularly—sometimes even daily—with antibiotic-laced food and water in a practice known as subtherapeutic administration, which helps animals grow bigger faster and reduce disease in crowded and dirty pens.

Health advocates claim this practice is contributing to the rise of “superbugs” and antibiotic-resistant infections in people.

Gretel H. Schueller, Contributing Writer

Watch: EatingWell on a Chicken Farm


The Increase of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in Food

The Increase of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in Food

Superbugs are increasingly appearing in food—MRSA in pork, resistant salmonella in turkey—and have caused widespread [outbreaks of food poisoning in the U.S. Because meat and poultry producers are not required to report how they use the drugs—which ones, how much, what animals—documenting a clear connection between routine antibiotic use in livestock and the rise of antibiotic resistance is tricky. Nevertheless, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies have testified before Congress that there is a definitive link between the two. This position is supported by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and other leading public health and medical groups.


What to Do if You?re Worried About Antibiotics in Your Food and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

What to Do if You’re Worried About Antibiotics in Your Food and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

If you’re worried, safely handling raw meats and fully cooking your foods will decrease the chance of bacterial contamination. But that doesn’t prevent superbugs from appearing elsewhere.
If you want your food raised without antibiotics, you’ll need to read the labels. When it comes to eggs, relatively few antibiotics are permitted in egg-laying chickens and any hen that’s been treated must be withdrawn for a specific period before her eggs can be used. However, a 2000 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that antibiotics can linger in a chicken's eggs. Studies published as recently as 2011 have also found residues of antibiotics in eggs, despite pledges made by the poultry industry to cut down on antibiotics.


Antibiotics in Farmed Fish

Antibiotics in Farmed Fish

Farmed fish is another confusing kettle. Although no USDA organic standards are yet in place, fish labeled as “organic” can still be sold (except in California) and might have been be treated with antibiotics. More than a third of the world’s seafood is farmed, and much like farmers of the land, many fish farmers regularly dose antibiotics—sometimes in huge quantities. Some retailers are taking initiative. For example, Whole Foods has an independent, third-party certification for all the farmed seafood it carries, which includes an antibiotic prohibition among other assurances. Recently launched is the “Farmed Responsibly” label certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which oversees standards for the farming of tilapia, mussels, clams, scallops and other species.

To help you navigate through the confusing and often misleading labyrinth of labels, here’s a quick run-down:


Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: USDA Organic/Certified Organic

Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: USDA Organic/Certified Organic

eggs, poultry, meat, dairy
The USDA ensures that foods with the certified USDA Organic label comes from animals that have never been given antibiotics.


Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: Food Alliance Certified

Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: Food Alliance Certified

eggs, poultry, meat, dairy
Food Alliance verifies that their animals are not given sub-therapeutic antibiotics. If animals are receiving antibiotics due to illness at the time of slaughter or during milking, these food products cannot be labeled FA certified.


Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: Animal Welfare Approved

Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: Animal Welfare Approved

eggs, poultry, meat, dairy
This label does not allow subtherapeutic antibiotics. Sick animals must be treated and can still be sold as AWA, as long as slaughter or milking is delayed until after twice the length of the regulated withdrawal period.


Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: American Grassfed Certified

Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: American Grassfed Certified

dairy, beef, lamb
This label guarantees that the animal was never given antibiotics. (In contrast, “100% Grass Fed” with the USDA Process Verified shield means that the cows were fed a lifetime diet of 100 percent grass and forage. It does not exclude antibiotics.)


Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: No Added Antibiotics/ No Antibiotics Administered

Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: No Added Antibiotics/ No Antibiotics Administered

eggs, poultry, meat, dairy
Variations of "no antibiotics added" can be meaningful. For meat and poultry only, the label means the animal never received antibiotics. With this claim, look for the “USDA Process Verified” shield, which shows the company paid to verify it. (Backing by a private certifier, such as Global Animal Partnership for Whole Foods meat, is equally reliable.)


Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: Certified Humane Raised and Handled

Antibiotic-Free Label to Look For: Certified Humane Raised and Handled

eggs, meat, poultry, dairy
This certification (not to be confused with American Humane Certified) is endorsed by several animal-welfare and food-safety organizations, including the ASPCA. Animals are raised on a diet without antibiotics. Antibiotics are allowed to treat sick animals, but only under veterinary supervision.


Don?t Bother with These Labels Claiming Antibiotic-Free Products

Don’t Bother with These Labels Claiming Antibiotic-Free Products

Natural
The USDA applies this claim only to fresh meat when nothing has been added to the cut of meat itself, such as added color. The cow (or pig or lamb) could still have been raised on an antibiotic diet and the term isn’t regulated.

Antibiotic-Free/No Antibiotic Residues
The USDA does not authorize these claims. Since no one approves them, they can mean anything.

Next: Antibiotics in Your Food: Wha'ts Causing the Rise in Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria In Our Food Supply and Why You Should Buy Antibiotic-Free Food »