5 Questions: Better Burgers Report

In June 2020, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released their report “Better Burgers: Why It’s High Time the U.S. Beef Industry Kicked Its Antibiotics Habit” to provide insight on how the beef industry’s routine and often unnecessary use of antibiotics is contributing to the antibiotic resistance crisis. We interviewed NRDC’s Senior Health Officer Dr. David Wallinga to hear more about their findings and why major changes are needed to reform this sector.

Can you tell us a bit about the report’s findings and the need for this report right now? Antibiotic resistance is at crisis levels and a key driver is the misuse of antibiotics.

Right now, antibiotics sold for use in cattle almost equal total antibiotics sold for use in human medicine. Because of the beef industry’s power, it’s succeeded in keeping the public mostly in the dark about how routinely and needlessly it continues to use these life-saving medicines. Mostly, they are being fed to herds of cattle whether or not they are sick. This can’t continue if we want a future where we can count on antibiotics to work when we, our families, or friends truly need them. A couple striking findings were that the cattle industry accounts for 42% of the 13.3 million pounds of medically important antibiotics sold for animal agriculture usage and that the U.S. cattle industry uses antibiotics 3-6 times more than European counterparts.

How do current practices harm livestock and contribute to overuse of antibiotics? Why is the U.S. cattle industry lagging so significantly in responsible antibiotic use?

Most beef cattle today are raised to slaughter on industrial feedlots, some of which are the size of small cities. Routine feedlot practices—such as the crowding and mixing of cattle from many different places, frequent shipping of cattle in an out of feedlots which is stressful for them, and feeding cattle low roughage/high-grain diets to which their ruminant stomachs are ill-adapted—combine to create conditions ripe for disease. Rather than focus on making long-overdue changes to these harmful practices, feedlots mostly are opting for business as usual, including the crutch of using antibiotics routinely supposedly to prevent disease. But as the report shows, the cattle are getting sicker anyway because of these practices.

The report highlights evidence on the transmission of resistance genes and bacteria from feedlots and meatpacking plants to workers, surrounding communities, and consumers. How does misuse of antibiotics and current industry practices evolve into a public and environmental crisis?

Most antibiotics important to human health are being used on livestock farms to raise animals. This exposes the workers who care for them and helps to create a local environment—the air and water around those workers—replete with potentially dangerous antibiotic resistant bacteria, as well as the genes that make them so. Just as meatpacking plants have become COVID-19 hotspots from which the virus can spread to surrounding communities, there’s good science that shows antibiotic overuse on feedlots also can and does spread superbug (drug-resistant) bacteria into those same communities—not to mention into the U.S. food supply.

How do issues with transparency and accountability complicate your research and the ability for meaningful change?

Myriad decisions and actions by the beef industry, as well as by the FDA and USDA, have the common effect of keeping the public ignorant about how the industry continues to egregiously squander some of our most precious medicines. The industry profits in the short-term, while the public will suffer the longer-term public health impacts. All could do better. The FDA and USDA could finally heed calls to require feedlots or farms to report on their use of antibiotics, as is common practice in Europe. Unlike the chicken industry, no leaders have emerged from the beef industry to report this information voluntarily. The USDA’s surveys of beef feedlots around antibiotic use remain infrequent, participation remains voluntary and the survey questions are often inconsistent and/or imprecise. In short, these surveys leave as many gaps in understanding and lingering questions as they answer.

The report emphasizes that the U.S. beef industry is largely concentrated in mega feedlots in just five states, with four buyers (Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods, and National Beef) accounting for 80% of beef meatpacking. How is consolidation in the meat industry a challenge, and possibly an opportunity? How are we going to begin to see substantive changes?

Since just four companies buy 80% of feedlot cattle, they could and should take action to steer beef supply chains away from routine antibiotic use. These companies currently don’t tell the public how intensively antibiotics are used in raising their beef—but we have the right to know. Their biggest customers (i.e. restaurants, food service companies, and grocery stores) can hold these meatpackers accountable by demanding they report on their use of antibiotics. Cities also have the power to create change. The city of San Francisco, for example, has an ordinance under which grocery stores report on antibiotics used by the producers of the meat products they carry. Read the report.