A recent report has demonstrated that there is little oversight regarding antibiotics in meat and poultry sold at U.S. grocery stores. Examining the 12 largest U.S. grocery chains and their subsidiaries, Superbugs in Stock considers the companies’ policies on antibiotic use in chicken, beef, poultry, and pork produced for their private-label offerings, as well as the level of implementation of such policies.

Excessive use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals is a large contributor to antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently highlighted the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a food safety area of concern, calling it the “leading cause of death around the world.”

Initial analysis reveals that the grocery industry has taken little action to require that the meat sold in stores comes from systems that use antibiotics responsibly. The report uses WHO’s definition for “responsible use” of antimicrobials, which means prohibiting the administration of medically important antibiotics to farmed animals for purposes other than treating sick or injured animals, or for controlling the spread of disease diagnosed by a veterinarian.

The report ranks the 12 analyzed grocery brands based on the existence of relevant policies on antibiotics in meat and poultry at each company, the comprehensiveness of company policies, reporting and verification activities for antibiotic policies, and policies that go beyond antibiotics (i.e., prohibiting beta-agonists and medicated feed additive carbadox). No grocery brand ranked higher than a “C” grade (40–59 points out of 100), and eight of 12 companies received an “F” (0–19 points).

Target received the highest overall score, earning 56 points out of 100, for its adoption of a time-bound policy to phase out antibiotics that applies to each species of animal products sold by their private-label brands. Target also includes animal welfare in its antibiotic policies, stating that improvements to welfare would contribute to lower antibiotic use. However, Target did not provide information on what portion of the meat it sells actually meets the standards of its antibiotics policy.

The report urges grocery chains to make commitments and work with producers to phase out the routine use of antibiotics for disease prevention throughout meat and poultry supply chains, prioritizing medically important classes. The report also calls for companies to collect better data and improve transparency on antimicrobial use in their supply chains, and recommends the use of third-party certifiers to verify progress.

The report also addresses meat and poultry producers, asking industry to follow WHO recommendations for phasing out routine antibiotic use. Additionally, the report advises state and local regulators and policymakers to implement strong laws, such as those adopted by Maryland and California, prohibiting the use of antibiotics for disease prevention, and establishing data collection and monitoring provisions.

Superbugs in Stock was co-authored by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and several members of the Antibiotics off the Menu coalition, namely: the Center for Food Safety, Consumer Reports, Food Animal Concerns Trust, the National Resources Defense Council, the Antibiotic Resistance Center of the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, and World Animal Protection.