NEW YORK—Eight of the 12 largest U.S. supermarket companies, including Walmart and Trader Joe's, received an "F" on a new report card grading corporate policies regarding antibiotic usage in their private label meat and poultry supplies, Superbugs in Stock, released Thursday by several members of the Antibiotics off the Menu coalition, reveals that most top U.S. grocery chains are failing to protect human and animal health by allowing suppliers to misuse antibiotics in their meat and poultry production. The report demonstrates that today, the grocery sector has taken inadequate action to help mitigate the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a global public health threat that has been called a "slow-moving pandemic."
"It is evident that the grocery sector has taken little action to address misuse of antibiotics in their meat and poultry supplies. Medicines are being used as a band-aid solution to the high risk of disease in the cruel, crowded, high-stress conditions animals endure on factory farms," said Annette Manusevich, the farming campaign manager for World Animal Protection and a lead author of the report. "Grocery chains and other food companies have a vital role to play in protecting animals and our health which must include providing more plant-based options to reduce the demand for more animals to enter our food system."
An estimated two-thirds of medically important antibiotics in the United States are sold to the meat and poultry industries. Bacteria respond to their rampant and continuous use in farmed animals by building resistance at an alarming rate. These bacteria can then end up in our food system via the meat reaching grocery shelves.
"As rampant overuse of antibiotics leads to the spread of resistant superbugs, more people are getting sick, becoming hospitalized, and dying from common infections -- up to 160,000 U.S. deaths each year," said Steven Roach, FACT's safe & healthy food program director and a lead author of the report. "As big meat buyers, grocers need to do more to make sure the meat they sell is not contributing to this serious health threat."
Superbugs in Stock ranks the grocers by how well they minimize routine antibiotic usage in otherwise healthy animals. Some chains are doing significantly better than others, though researchers didn't give any of them grades in the "A" or "B" ranges. Target and Ahold Delhaize (owner of the Food Lion, Giant, and Stop & Shop brands) stand out as leaders in the sector with a "C" and "C- ", respectively, showing the dire need for greater progress overall.
"It's disappointing that there is so little leadership among grocery stores to restrict the use of antibiotics in the meat and poultry products they sell," said Laura Rogers, deputy director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University. "If this sector would demand limited use of antibiotics in the products they source this would lead to a significant decrease in the use of live-saving antibiotics in food animal production, which is desperately needed."
Infectious disease experts have warned for decades about the rise in bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Recently published research estimated that 1.27 million people died globally in 2019 from antibiotic-resistant infections, with historically marginalized groups more susceptible to harmful impacts, in a manner similar to other public health challenges, including COVID-19.
"Antibiotic resistance is only set to get worse. Grocery store chains should take responsibility for their inaction and use their power to transform the meat marketplace into one that limits antibiotic use," said Julia Ranney, Center for Food Safety's Policy Associate.
No company received higher than a "C" in this report due to a lack of monitoring and reporting on antibiotic use even among companies with strong policies in place. This is critical for determining whether suppliers are actually complying with company policies, reductions in use are being achieved, and the health of farmed animals is being protected.
"Now, consumers know where each grocery store stands in its efforts, or lack thereof, to reduce antibiotic use in the meat supply chain. Next time you're doing your weekly shopping, ask the manager to tell company executives that consumers want more meat raised without overusing our life-saving medicines," said Matt Wellington, U.S. PIRG Education Fund's Public Health Campaigns Director.