What's Up With Chipotle's Potential New Antibiotic Standards for Beef?

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By Laura Rogers

Chipotle Mexican Grill, one of America's fastest-growing restaurant chains known for serving responsibly raised food, announced this week that it is considering buying some of its beef  from animals that may have been treated with antibiotics therapeutically. People are trying to figure out what this means, but, long story short: This could be good for consumers, farmers, and animals. 

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                                                                                            USDA
Chipotle is considering changing its policies on buying beef.

On livestock farms, antibiotic use falls into two general categories: therapeutic and nontherapeutic. Under therapeutic use, animals are given full doses of antibiotics to treat actual diseases and to keep the illness from spreading. Just as it is appropriate to treat a sick person with an antibiotic, treating sick animals is also warranted.

In contrast, nontherapeutic use means that the animals get low doses of antibiotics routinely, either to promote growth or to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Such uses are inappropriate and do not kill bacteria effectively. Studies also demonstrate that nontherapeutic use of these drugs more readily breeds superbugs, contributing to the antibiotic resistance problem.

Chipotle strives to get all of its meat and poultry from animals that were never given antibiotics. If an animal was being raised for Chipotle and got sick, it would have been given an antibiotic. Then, if it got well, it would have reentered the food supply for sale elsewhere, but not to Chipotle. If the company changes its policy, it will buy some beef that comes from healthy cattle that might have received therapeutic antibiotics. But it still won't buy meat that comes from livestock that were given antibiotics for growth promotion and other nontherapeutic purposes.

Chipotle CEO Steve Ells said: “Many experts, including some of our ranchers, believe that animals should be allowed to be treated if they are ill and remain in the herd.” We agree. Pew opposes the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics but strongly supports their use to treat sick animals. And Chipotle's potential new standards would be consistent with this.

In 1998, Denmark banned the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture. Antibiotic use on livestock was halved, meat production increased, and costs remained stable. Other European Union countries and South Korea are also adopting these policies, and all allow therapeutic use of these drugs in food animals.

Chipotle's potential new standard for beef should be the industry standard in the United States, just as it is in a growing number of countries. Such a standard would make it easier for farmers to use antibiotics to keep animals healthy while also discouraging misuse that endangers public health. And it still leaves room for producers to raise food animals without antibiotics at all—a premium option that some consumers may still prefer.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to finalize new policies to move the United States in this direction, but it has not done so yet. To urge President Obama's administration to put this plan into action, click here.

Laura Rogers directs The Pew Charitable Trusts' campaign to reduce antibiotic overuse on industrial farms.