New study finds that cooking meat at safe temperatures is more effective at limiting exposure to bacteria than buying meat labeled "raised without antibiotics."

As grocery shoppers, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the “free-from” labels that are increasingly common on food packaging today.

And you likely have noticed  “antibiotic-free” or “raised without antibiotics” labels on poultry or meat products in the grocery store. 

We all want to buy the safest food possible for ourselves and our families. Yet experts say these “free-from” labels are misleading.

All meat and poultry sold in the United States is free of antibiotics, as required by federal law. 

“Our meat supply does not have antibiotics in it,” says Dr. Paul Plum­mer, a veterinarian and executive director of the National Institute of Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education, based at Iowa State University in Ames.

Even farmers who raise livestock in organic or “without antibiotics” programs use antibiotics to treat sick animals, Plummer notes. However, those treated animals must be sold through conventional market channels.

If a farm animal does get sick and need antibiotics, farmers must follow strict U.S. Food and Drug Administration  guidelines for the proper dosage, duration and withdrawal time — or in other words, the time between when the animal is treated and when it goes to market, Plummer explains. 

As an added layer of protection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) samples meat and poultry products to ensure they are free of antibiotic residues.

In the very rare case when a product tests positive for antibiotic residues, it is removed from the food supply chain and never goes to market. 

As consumers, we also play a part in keeping our food safe, Plummer notes. 

Safe food handling practices, in­cluding cooking meat and poultry to USDA recommended safe temperatures, will kill potential illness-causing bacteria, Plummer says.

In fact, a recent University of Neb­raska study found that cooking ground beef to proper food-safe temperatures is more effective at limiting our exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria than choosing meat labeled “raised without antibiotics” rather than conventionally raised beef.

“If you take those (recommended) precautions, the (risk of) resistance of antibiotics from a meat source is eliminated,” Plummer says.

Livestock farmers understand that it’s better to prevent farm animals from getting sick so they don’t need to use antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, Plummer says.

Farmers work closely with their veterinarians to develop comprehensive animal health plans, including strict biosecurity measures, such as requiring employees to shower-in and shower-out before entering barns, limiting outside visitors and disinfecting livestock trailers.

Vaccination plans are also an im­portant tool in preventing farm animals from getting sick, Plummer says.

“For cows and pigs, respiratory diseases are one of our leading use of antibiotics. But if we can prevent respiratory disease through vaccination, then we don’t need to use antibiotics to treat it, and that allows us to reduce overall antibiotic use,” he says.

Plummer also notes that farmers are adopting new precision ag­riculture technologies to identify illness before it spreads to the whole herd.

For example, researchers are dev­eloping sensors in barns that can detect when a pig coughs, which could be an early sign that the animal needs to be separated from the rest of the herd.

Amazingly, scientists are also in­vestigating facial recognition tech­­nology that can identify sick cattle based on the animals’ facial expressions.

“Agriculture is stepping up to the plate,” Plummer says. “We are re­ducing antibiotic use significantly, but we still need to improve. And that doesn’t give us a pass to sit back on our laurels and say we are done. We are doing a good job, and that comes about as veterinarians and producers working together in concert with consumers.”