Animal Antibiotics and Carnitas: A Much-Needed Reality Check

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I recently walked into a trendy fast-casual restaurant and noticed a sign saying that they had stopped serving carnitas. Wow, was I shocked! I found out that some restaurants were having trouble matching their supply of pork with customer demand because of their marketing promises about “integrity,” which includes a refusal to buy meat from animals raised or treated with antibiotics.

But this points to a much bigger problem than just what you’re able to put on your burrito: demagoguing a critical issue of animal welfare in order to gain market share by misleading consumers about the safety of antibiotics and the role they play in animal health. After all, few American consumers use a meat thermometer to ensure meat is cooked to a safe temperature, and even fewer understand the complexity and regulatory scrutiny involved in ensuring a safe food supply, so it can be tempting to substitute marketing-speak for sound science and facts.

Animals used in food production should be able to live as free from pain, suffering and sickness as possible. Experts such as H. Morgan Scott, DVM, Texas A&M, and others agree that the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals is the moral and ethical thing to do.  Healthy animals mean a safe, affordable and abundant food supply.

As it turns out, deep down the popular burrito joints must know this too, because they are now walking back their no-antibiotics promise—admitting that when they are used to keep animals healthy, “this does not mean that antibiotics are present in the meat.”

Many opponents of antibiotics try to paint a picture of farmers of traditionally raised animals as somehow unethical or uncaring about how their animals are raised. In reality, even organic farmers are allowed to use antibiotics, as Will Gilmer, a dairy farmer in Alabama explains:

When antibiotics are deemed medically necessary to treat a sick animal, farmers and ranchers, both “conventional” and “organic,” have an ethical responsibility to treat them. To balance their responsibility to the animal’s health and the requirements of organic labeling, most organic producers either market treated animals as conventionally raised or sell them to a producer who is not in the organic or similar program.

Finally, another issue to consider is sustainability. Relying so heavily on a supplier in the UK, rather than the responsible pork producers closer to home, would greatly increase a company’s transportation needs, along with its carbon footprint (not to mention the potential negative impact on U.S. jobs). According to the IFIC Foundation’s 2015 Food and Health Survey, 35 percent of Americans say that sustainability has at least some impact on their food-purchasing decisions. Further, 64 percent say they have given at least some thought to whether their foods and beverages are produced in an environmentally sustainable way.

“Integrity” has different meanings to different people. But one definition we should all be able to agree on is being straight with consumers when it comes to the truth about issues like animal antibiotics. There is a difference between offering consumers a choice versus removing choice and defending it with misleading rhetoric.

Matt Raymond, IFIC Foundation’s senior director of communications, contributed to this piece.