Walmart To Require Meat Suppliers Provide Data On Antibiotics Use

Antibiotics used on farm animals account for more than 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S., and many of these drugs are medically important to the health of human beings. The overuse of antibiotics results in the development of drug-resistant pathogens, thus making the antibiotics less effective and requiring more potent drugs. Some of the nation’s biggest buyers of meat are making the switch toward purchasing antibiotic-free meat (or meat that is only given drugs not deemed medically important to humans), and today Walmart said it will begin collecting and sharing data on the antibiotics used by its meat suppliers.

The nation’s biggest retailer is taking a three-pronged approach to this transparency effort, which will hopefully result in reduced levels of antibiotic use.

First, it is asking suppliers to adopt and implement the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Judicious Use Principles for antimicrobials.

While these principles do stress that antimicrobial use should be limited and targeted, they don’t draw a hard line against the prophylactic use of antibiotics that concerns many public health advocates. Rather, the principles state that it shouldn’t be “utilized as standard practice” and that metaphylaxis — the mass use of low-dose antibiotics — “should be actively discouraged.”

If suppliers implement these principles as written, then it should cut down on some antibiotic overuse, though some will continue to argue the necessity of prophylactic drug use.

Walmart is also asking suppliers to adopt and implement the FDA’s Voluntary Guidance for Industry #209, which includes ceasing the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.

But this just brings up the loophole of preventative prophylactic use again. Some suppliers contend that growth promotion was always just a positive result of using antibiotics for disease prevention.

“All those antibiotics-exposed animals become potential incubators for the development and spread of drug-resistant bacteria,” writes David Wallinga, MD, for the Natural Resources Defense Council, “and ultimately undercut the future effectiveness of antibiotics when actually needed to treat infections.”

The final prong of the Walmart antibiotic trident is also the one that offers the most promise: Requiring that suppliers report on their antibiotics management practices, and that these reports be made public annually.

This is the sort of transparency that advocates have been calling on the FDA to require from drug companies and farmers. The agency recently proposed a rule that would break down antibiotic use based on the type of livestock receiving the drug, but will still keep consumers in the dark about how many drugs your average cow, pig, or chicken is ingesting each day.

“In seeking transparency from their suppliers, Walmart is responding to consumer demand for knowledge in how their food is produced,” says Susan Grooters, policy analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working. “This important step forward will position Walmart to analyze the antibiotic use practices and whether medically important antibiotics are used and for what purposes.”

Grooters also calls out Walmart for not using its leverage as the country’s largest supermarket chain to demand more far-reaching changes to its suppliers’ antibiotic use practices.

“While transparency is definitely needed, continued routine use of antibiotics for disease prevention does not meet consumer expectations,” she explains. “Routine use, whether it be for growth promotion or disease prevention, creates the same public health risk, and should thus be explicitly restricted in Walmart’s policy.”

Wallinga describes the Walmart news as more business as usual.

“Walmart wants to present its announcement as a step forward on responsible antibiotic use. But it’s actually lagging behind the industry leaders,” he writes, citing more definitive antibiotics-related moves by McDonald’s, Chick fil-A, Perdue, and Tyson.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.