Conventional supermarkets’ meat departments now typically have at least a limited selection of antibiotic-free meat products, a category that some natural food stores offer exclusively.
Jewel-Osco stores can opt to carry antibiotic-free ground beef, bison and grass-fed meat, said Karen May, external communications manager, who noted shoppers can also special order antibiotic-free products.
“We recently added both High Plains Bison and Strauss Grass Fed Beef because we noticed some increase in demand for these types of products as well as being antibiotic-free meats.”
In a study released last summer, the advocacy group Consumers Union found that 11 out of 13 big chains had antibiotic-free poultry or meat private-label products, including Ahold , Costco , Delhaize , A&P , H-E-B, Kroger , Safeway , Supervalu , Publix , Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods . Meijer  and Wal-Mart ’s store brands weren’t antibiotic-free, but the chains offered other suppliers’ antibiotic-free products.
While retailers see steady shopper interest in this category, they haven’t reported booming sales.
“I think it’s becoming more of an issue, it’s still not a huge issue. But I think there are more people looking at it [the antibiotic-free] than five years ago,” said Kelly Mortensen, meat director for Associated Food Stores , Salt Lake City.
Creekstone Natural Beef, an antibiotic-free and steroid-free product, has been available at Associated Food Stores’ locations for five years now, Mortensen said.
“We brought the category on mainly because it performed really well. It really picked up nice, and of course it had those attributes [of no antibiotics or steroids], and I’m not saying the category has grown a lot, but it seems like there’s more interest.”
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May agreed about the category’s performance. “We have seen some customer interest in antibiotic-free meat, but the demand has not been particularly high.”
On the pork side, Jarrod Sutton, assistant vice president of channel marketing for the National Pork Board, has not seen growth in antibiotic-free offerings in the FreshLook Marketing retail scanner data.
Recent research shows that shoppers may not be aware of the meat products available at their store.
In a Midan Marketing survey, 55% of shoppers didn’t know if their store had meat that was raised with hormones or antibiotics, said Danette Amstein, principal.
After hearing about antibiotics and growth hormones used in livestock, 44% of consumers surveyed didn’t change their behavior and 20% reported switching to a natural or organic pork or beef brand.
Amstein said Midan can’t be sure that other factors didn’t also convince shoppers to switch their purchasing habits.
In the Midan study, 72% of respondents said they were interested in purchasing antibiotic- and hormone-free meat. And, as previously reported by SN, 86% respondents to a Consumer Reports survey said they should be allowed to buy meat raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, and 60% said they’d be willing to pay 5 cents more a pound.
While Consumer Reports found that some prices for antibiotic-free items can be comparable to or even lower than conventional meat, the price range varied.
The National Pork Board’s Sutton said antibiotic-free meat is expensive to raise and many consumers can’t afford it.
Awareness of Antibiotics
Awareness of the issue of antibiotics and growth hormones is high, with 79% of Midan respondents having heard of antibiotics’ use in meat production and 85% having heard about growth hormones. Forty-one percent of respondents said they were concerned about negative effects of antibiotics and 42% about the effects of growth hormones.
“I think that for retailers in particular that’s a matter of making sure they’re a conduit of information from the supplier to the consumer. All too often consumers as we learned in the Meat Matters research have a deeply embedded perception of something that is not factual,” said Amstein.
“So if they’re sharing that in the grocery store or they are asking that based on a misperception, the retailers can help themselves and the suppliers and the consumers by correcting misinformation.”
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Amstein said that 44% of customers couldn’t accurately define antibiotics or growth hormones.
The Consumers Union found that associates in some large chains did not have correct information about the meat offerings.
Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, an independent, has strict requirements for its meat products and makes sure to share the information with in-store signs and other printed materials, according to Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs at PCC.
One requirement is that meat must be from animals raised without hormones or antibiotics. “We also keep our shoppers informed about research and legislation related to meat, poultry and seafood standards.”
The Consumers Union has been campaigning to convince 13 large supermarket chains to go antibiotic-free, arguing that the farm industry overuses antibiotics and hurts the efficacy of these drugs in humans, according to Director of Food Policy Initiatives Jean Halloran. Of the 13 chains, Whole Foods Market is the only one to offer exclusively antibiotic and hormone-free meat.
“The Food and Drug Administration is not taking a strong stance on this ... They’ve asked for the drug companies and the livestock producers to voluntarily phase out over three years use for growth promotion, but according to the industry, that growth promotion use only constitutes 15% of all antibiotics used in livestock production,” said Halloran.
Industry groups like the pork board argue that veterinarians help develop antibiotic doses for farm animals, and Sutton noted that the pork industry works closely with government agencies on the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System. “There has never been a case of treatment failure in a person that has been shown to be the result of antibiotic use in animals,” he said.
FDA Reports on Antibiotics
ROCKVILLE, Md. — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently released its annual reports observing the amount and effect of antibiotics used in livestock.
The FDA found that 12% of retail chicken samples in 2011 had salmonella, according to the “2011 Retail Meat Report” from the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS).
Of those samples with salmonella, 74.1% were found to have antibiotic resistance, with 13.3% resistant to six antimicrobial classes.
Enterococcus bacteria was found in 95% of retail chicken samples tested, 90.6% of ground turkey, 88.1% of ground beef and 79.8% of pork chops.
Of the chicken samples containing E. Faecalis, a prevalent strain of Enterococcus, were drug resistant, 99.5% were resistant to at least one class of drugs, as were 99.2% of ground turkey samples, 97.8% of ground beef and 99.4% of pork samples.
The NARMS report is put together by the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health laboratories in 11 states.
Overall sales of antibiotics rose slightly from 2010 to 2011. FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine was notified of 30.3 million pounds of antimicrobial drugs sold or distributed for use in domestic or exported food-producing animals, an overall increase of 2.1% since 2010, according to a separate FDA report.
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“FDA scientists are currently reviewing Section 105 [of the ADUFA] sales and distribution data in association with known resistance patterns. It is not expected to see transient increases or decreases in sales of certain drugs in a given year due to various factors (e.g. occurrence of disease outbreaks, fluctuations in animal populations),” FDA wrote in an industry FAQ accompanying the 2011 report, noting it is only the third year of recording sales data which limits the ability of the agency to find trends.
FDA began collecting information from drug companies after a 2008 amendment to the Animal Drug User Fee Act required these companies to share more information about their sales and products.
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