Briefing: Do we need antibiotic-free labels on food?

WITH THE OVERUSE of medicine linked to the rise of MRSA, pressure is mounting on the food industry to act. Experts give their view.

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New investigation

An investigation by the Guardian newspaper found that pork sold by several leading supermarkets was contaminated with a strain of MRSA. The so-called superbug has been linked with the overuse of powerful antibiotics on intensive farms. The pork was not British, but research published at the same time by the Alliance to Save Antibiotics identified MRSA in meat from British pig farms.


Health risks

The health risks associated with this finding are thought to be very small, as the bug is eliminated through cooking. RUMA, the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance, highlights that there is an international system to set a maximum residue level for every active ingredient, including antibiotics, used in medicines to treat food-producing animals. This is the level at which consumption is deemed safe. One toxicologist involved in the process apparently said the “Danger: cliff edge” sign is set at three miles inland.


Consumer concern

However, pressure is mounting on the government to look at the issue of antibiotic use afresh. Last year a survey by the National Office of Animal Health found that 81% believe that the use of antibiotics in livestock makes them less effective for people – up from 76% in 2012.


Food firms react

Some food companies have already moved to reduce or eliminate their use of certain antibiotics. In the US, where intensive farming is carried on a much larger scale than the UK and antibiotic use is said to be much higher, the likes of McDonald’s have made commitments. However, these have been criticised as greenwashing.


New label

All this has led to renewed interest in the introduction of an antibiotic-free label on foods to put consumers’ minds at rest and force the food sector to think twice about antibiotic use. However, the three experts we asked all questioned the validity of such a scheme.


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“It is probably not something that’s needed. However, it is perhaps now becoming something that is becoming more desired by consumers and is part of the growing interest by consumers in the provenance of their food.


“In some countries, this labelling has raised more questions and actually created more public concern. There is no obvious way to convey this information without the potential to confuse consumers. The best approach is likely to be a more focused version of the approach applied to allergens.”


Dominic Watkins, head of food group, law firm DWF



“We’re not aware of any consumer interest in such a label and it is difficult to see how it would benefit consumers. If such labelling was required it would need to be a global initiative as the food in UK supermarkets is globally sourced. It would, of course, be impossible to include antibiotic information in processed foods which can be made from meat from a number of animals.”


John FitzGerald, RUMA secretary general



“Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is transferred through a number of pathways, of which meat is one. Those with direct contact with pigs treated on a routine basis are at higher risk of contamination, as are those who they interact with. Studies are also showing increased cases of human resistance in those who have no direct contact with farmed animals, showing that resistant bacteria is also spread through the environment.


“Introducing a labelling system would not impact these other areas and so the spread of resistant bacteria would continue. It would risk missing the systemic problem, which is one of routine misuse of antibiotics in order to compensate for the often crowded conditions of intensive systems, where disease outbreaks are more common and harder to control. Introducing labels risks … turning meat products from animals raised without antibiotics into premium products – rather than the absolute norm.


“We believe that animals must and should be treated with antibiotics as and when is necessary – and when this mirrors diagnosis from a qualified vet. It is the routine, prophylactic use that must stop.”


Emma Rose, Alliance to Save our Antibiocs