A landmark study published in Science last week has fueled doubt among consumers of meat sold with labels claiming it was raised without antibiotics.
The study was coauthored by antibiotic-resistance-focused researchers from George Washington University and Kevin Lo, the CEO of FoodID. I wrote about the startup a year ago, when FoodID had raised a $12 million series B to take its inexpensive tests into industrial slaughterhouses nationwide. At the time, executives and investors told me they were getting many bad test results. Now there’s peer-reviewed proof.
They sampled cattle from across 12% of the supply of beef raised without antibiotics over a seven-month period—more than 38,000 cattle total. FoodID tested samples from 699 cattle, or 2 cattle from each lot in the study.
Their results suggest many labels are misleading: More than 40% of the feed yards sampled—and about 15% of the total lots tested across all feed yards—had at least one case of cattle testing positive for antibiotics. The study also found that more than a quarter of the cattle sampled from the Global Animal Partnership welfare certification program, used by Whole Foods and hundreds of other retailers and meat purchasers, had at least one positive test. Whole Foods denies it has sold meat raised with antibiotics when the label claims none.
But ranchers to retailers all earn more for antibiotic-free meat, and there’s a financial incentive to cheat, study coauthor and public health professor Lance Price tells me. Testing provides a simple, cheap and quick solution to this problem—but so far adoption is limited to what FoodID can access.
Price wants to see more testing and more transparency on what meat is testing positive for antibiotics treatments. “This is a very tight industry. Most don’t let people on site to do this kind of testing,” he says. “Nobody wants to report, and nobody wants anybody else in the chain to report.”
I look forward to writing more on how the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has sole authority to approve labels, responds to these results, and what consumers do.
And I appreciate you reading this edition of Fresh Take on a Monday, after I battled a nasty cold last week. After the Passover and Easter holidays, we’ll be back to our regular Friday programming.
If you’re celebrating one of these springtime holidays (or another one!), I’d love to hear what you’re cooking. I enjoy riffing on a traditional seder. My sister has the matzoh balls covered. I’ll also celebrate Easter—which I do appreciate for having fewer rules, except maybe to avoid cooking rabbit.
It’s not quite ramp season here in New York City, which is a shame as they’re always a great addition to any lamb. That’s what I’m planning on eating a fair amount of, particularly the grass-fed kind from my local partner network. At some point soon, I’ll also probably try out a little tortellini and peas, covered in a zesty cream sauce, topped with mint. How about you?
— Chloe Sorvino, Staff Writer
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Chloe Sorvino leads coverage of food and agriculture as a staff writer on the enterprise team at Forbes. Her nearly eight years of reporting at Forbes has brought her to In-N-Out Burger’s secret test kitchen, drought-ridden farms in California’s Central Valley, burnt-out national forests logged by a timber billionaire, a century-old slaughterhouse in Omaha and even a chocolate croissant factory designed like a medieval castle in Northern France. Her book, Raw Deal: Hidden Corruption, Corporate Greed and the Fight for the Future of Meat, will publish in December 2022 with Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books.
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