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US farm agency implements stricter verification for antibiotic use claims on meat products

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will take steps to better verify antibiotic-free labels on meat and poultry products after receiving petitions challenging its existing process for not being rigorous enough, the agency announced Wednesday.

Consumer, food safety and environmental groups have long warned that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming can contribute to human antibiotic resistance. The World Health Organization in 2017 recommended that the food industry curtail antibiotic use to fight resistance.

The USDA aims to improve its verification process for products labeled as “raised without antibiotics,” it said Wednesday. Under existing guidelines, meat sold with that label must come from animals which were not given antibiotics in their feed, water, or by injection.

The agency will conduct sampling of cattle whose meat will eventually be marketed with the label and screen for antibiotic residues.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which oversees meat labeling, also plans to revise its guidelines to encourage companies to use third-party certification of their label claims. The agency last updated its guidelines in 2019.

A 2022 study by the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University found that 42% of cattle raised in purportedly antibiotic-free feed lots tested positive for antibiotic residues.

“Consumers pay a premium when purchasing (‘raised without antibiotics’) products,” Lance B. Price, the center’s founder, said in a statement. “They should get what they are paying for.”

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