The Gentle Vet By Scott Hurd
Dr. Scott Hurd (DVM) spent 15 years working in 3 USDA branches, including acting as Deputy Acting Undersecretary for Food Safety in 2008. He is currently an associate professor at Iowa State University Department of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine.

It’s all antibiotic free, baby!

(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author.)

Over the last couple of weeks there has been much discussion on social media sites about Panera’s antibiotic free policy, initially named EZ Chicken. Now Chipotle has stirred the pot, as well.

If you look on Twitter for the hashtag #pluckEZchicken, you will see thousands of tweets reaching over 50,000 people encouraging Panera to “pluck” their antibiotic free campaign “EZ Chicken.”  Panera really irritated the farm community by inferring that farmers using antibiotics are lazy.  Panera has slightly backed away from the EZ Chicken campaign specifically, but they still maintain that their antibiotic free (ABF) products are superior.  I have discussed how misleading their advertisements are and have asked to meet with Panera’s upper management.

After all of this Panera hype, I further investigated the USDA residue data. What struck me, in looking at the data on nationwide antibiotic residues in broilers, is “it’s all antibiotic free.”  Due to farmers following appropriate withdrawal times, there are minimal violations in the routine (targeted) sampling. The gory data details are in this week’s blog at  Of the scheduled residue samples from 2009-2011, there have been 0.13 percent violations in market hogs, 0.12 percent in beef cattle and ZERO in broilers. For those not mathematically inclined, “zero” means antibiotic free!

Noteworthy is the low number of times any antibiotic was discovered even below the violation level. Note, also that an animal testing positive for residues, will NOT enter the food chain.

So while the media and now the mainstream restaurateurs of the country (e.g. Chipotle, Panera, Hyatt) are busy crowing about antibiotic free, I am saying “so what?”  More importantly, I am asking, “What happens in the ABF farm when animals get sick?”

Supposedly, farmers will treat the animals that need it, but infectious disease can move quickly through a group.  Delaying treatment by one day can increase mortality significantly. What if an ABF farmer cannot deliver the promised poundage of ABF meat? What sort of a financial penalty does he take?  Most farmers get some premium for raising ABF, so I ask: Must they make a choice between animal suffering and financial gain?

What about the veterinarian, who has taken an oath to prevent animal suffering, but management will only let him treat a small percentage of the barns? Can these restaurateurs really argue their ABF meat provides a better “conscience choice,” if it comes at the cost of additional mortality and additional animal suffering? 

I suppose I have bothered some people with these questions and concepts, but I want to be clear that they are not accusations. I am kind of old-fashioned; I still believe science is a useful tool for decision making, and our government can provide some pretty good data reflecting the science of the situation.

Dr. Richard Raymond commented on some other relevant scientific data on this topic.  I think the mainstream system we have does a great job, and ABF is a misleading concept to get the consumer to pay more. Our job is to provide healthy, safe food to the world – not to mislead or manipulate them.   


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