Costco takes big steps to reduce human health risk from excessive antibiotic use in agriculture

By Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer

Costco, the Issaquah, WA based wholesale warehouse corporation, and one of the largest food retailers in the country, has taken a major step to reduce the risk to human health posed by antibiotic use in agriculture.  As reported by the Seattle Times, the new Costco Animal Welfare Policy on Antibiotics sets out standards and accountability requirements for antibiotic use in animal agriculture, making it one of the largest food companies to take on the issue. The new standards aim to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use in food animals and to increase accountability of Costco meat suppliers in documenting compliance with the policy. 

Why is this important? All animal farming must obey strict rules to ensure no antibiotics are in the animal’s system before it can be slaughtered for food. This ensures there are no antibiotic residues (traces of leftover antibiotics) in your food.

That said, “antibiotic free” does not mean the animals do not carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

All animals carry bacteria in their intestines. Many of the bacteria (such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and Escherichia coli) carried by animals can also cause disease in people.  Giving antibiotics to animals will kill many bacteria, but resistant bacteria can survive and multiply.  When food animals are slaughtered and processed, these bacteria can contaminate the meat or other animal products. These bacteria can also get into the environment through animal stool and may spread to fruits and vegetables that are irrigated with contaminated water.

Antimicrobial-resistant infections in humans can cause longer illnesses, increased frequency of hospitalization, and treatment failures that can result in death. Some types of bacteria that cause serious infections in humans have already developed resistance to most or all of the available treatments, and we are running out of treatment options for some types of infection. Each year, at least 23,000 Americans die and some two million are sickened from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

Available data show that around 70 percent of the total volume of all medically important antibiotics in the United States is sold for use on the farm.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented a federal policy in January 2017 making it illegal to use medically important antibiotics to promote animal growth and requiring veterinary oversight to add them to feed and water.

However, many medically important antibiotics can still be used legally in ways that do not meet FDA’s own definition of judicious use.  And, there are no food labeling requirements related to antibiotic use.

The World Health Organization (WHO), the Infectious Disease Society of America, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association and many other food safety, health and scientific organizations recommend that farmers and the food industry stop using antibiotics routinely to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals.  This will help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics that are important for human medicine by reducing their unnecessary use in animals.

The action taken by Costco is consistent with the recommendation from the American Public Health Association that bulk purchasers of foodstuffs adopt procurement policies that encourage and, where feasible, require procurement of meat, fish, and dairy products produced without non-therapeutic use of medically important antibiotics. 

What can consumers do? Consumers deserve to know about antibiotic use in the foods they purchase, and they can influence food producers by purchasing meat and poultry that was raised responsibly. Consumers can influence other retailers, including grocery stores, to enact similar policies. In addition, currently, there is no single definition for “antibiotic-free” on food labels: This label is not approved by the USDA, and has no clear meaning. Therefore, USDA should take action to require verified labels to ensure the transparency and accountability of production practices related to antibiotic use in food animals.

Until that time, consumers will need to depend on the stores where they purchase meat products to enact policies that require documentation of antibiotic use in food animals and the meat they sell, and communicate that information to consumers.  Costco has taken an important first step in this direction.

UPDATE 12/12/18:

On December 11th, McDonald’s announced a new policy to reduce the use of medically important antibiotics in its beef supply chain. The company will monitor antibiotic use in its top ten beef sourcing markets and set reduction targets for medically important antibiotic use by the end of 2020. Principles in the policy include restricting the routine use of the drugs to prevent disease, a practice that the World Health Organization recommends ending because it breeds antibiotic resistant bacteria (and not included in the current Costco policy). As the largest beef purchaser in the United States, McDonald’s new commitment could spark an industry-wide change to help keep antibiotics effective.