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How can "antibiotic-free" meat contain antibiotics?

Simple: Nobody’s watching.

Farm Forward found residue of a growth-promoting antibiotic in Global Animal Partnership’s (GAP) Animal Welfare Certified™ meat purchased from Whole Foods Market, raising questions about the ability (and motivation) of retailers and certifications, like GAP, to ensure that their products live up to their promises. A large-scale, peer-reviewed study published in Science has now affirmed Farm Forward’s findings—a significant percentage of GAP-certified animals were found to come from feedlots where multiple animals tested positive for prohibited substances. In this post, we explain why we aren’t surprised to find drug residues in certified products, and the steps needed to address these problems. These troubling findings raise a variety of questions about products with “drug-free” and “humane” labels. For example, if Whole Foods and a stringent third-party certification can’t protect consumers from these drugs, can they protect farmed animals from cruelty on factory farms? And if these certified, premium products have the same problems as conventional alternatives, should consumers continue to spend up to 20 percent more for them?1

Considering the huge variety of “antibiotic-free” and “all natural” labels used on meat products, and the high prices for products carrying a third-party certification, it’s reasonable to assume that there are multiple safeguards in place to ensure that animals haven’t been fed prohibited drugs. But the reality is that virtually no one is testing for these substances: not the retailers, not the certifications, and for the most part, not the USDA or other regulatory bodies. As a result, products with “antibiotic-free” labels may contain traces of antibiotics, as Farm Forward’s testing has shown and has been confirmed by a recent study published in Science.2

The USDA tests a small percentage of meat products for drug residue, but only to detect quantities that they deem harmful to human health (the FDA has voiced skepticism about the USDA thresholds, and some drugs approved by the USDA have been banned in dozens of countries). USDA’s minimal testing does nothing to prevent retailers from selling products with “never ever” labels even if they contain trace amounts of prohibited drugs. For example, in 2019, only 0.003 percent of US beef cattle were subject to any form of chemical testing.4 In other words, the USDA plays no role whatsoever in verifying antibiotic-free claims made by meat producers.

Retailers know that the USDA isn’t testing, of course, so you’d assume retailers would test their own products to ensure that they aren’t lying to shoppers who purchase “drug-free” and “all natural” products, but Farm Forward isn’t aware of a single retailer that tests for prohibited drugs. Why not? Because they aren’t required to test by law, and testing could expose them to additional liability—since they don’t test, they can claim they weren’t aware of these problems.

If the government doesn’t require verification, and nobody else is looking, what incentive do retailers have to crack down?

GAP and other third-party certifications are aware that retailers like Whole Foods don’t test their products for drug residues, so they should be the last line of defense ensuring that retailers are living up to their promises—but they’re not. In 2017, Farm Forward used our seat on GAP’s board of directors to push for this sort of drug testing, but we were unsuccessful. (Farm Forward resigned from GAP’s board in April 2020.) Now, Farm Forward’s test results, and a large-scale, peer-reviewed study, prove that GAP and Whole Foods have failed to prevent these drugs from reaching store shelves. Because Whole Foods profits from drug-free claims which they do not verify, our findings look particularly bad for GAP, whose Executive Director receives a salary from Whole Foods.

GAP’s unwillingness to curb the use of prohibited drugs is a reflection of an even more troubling trend: In most cases, animal welfare certifications have been commandeered by corporations for the purpose of humanewashing by offering their stamp of approval for factory farming. GAP does inspect farms for compliance with their welfare standards (not all certifiers do), but in our view, insufficiently. Within the GAP program, most farms receive announced audits just once every 15 months. A recent undercover investigation of a GAP-certified farm captured violent—but not unusual—handling of turkeys being gathered for slaughter. The footage is a painful reminder that humanewashing has very real consequences for the hundreds of millions of animals living on “certified” factory farms. 

In short: the USDA allows the use of questionable drugs in meat production and fails to ensure that products with labels like “all natural” and “antibiotic-free” live up to their claims; meat sellers rely on the word of meat producers who claim their animals are never treated with drugs, though testing proves otherwise; and none of the major third-party certifications test for drug residues in meat within their audit programs. The USDA, retailers, and third-party certifiers understand that no one is watching, but have taken no action. Meanwhile, producers, retailers, and third-party certifications profit from “antibiotic-free” labeling, and consumers continue to pay more for these products.

Factory farms can’t operate profitably without antibiotics and other drugs, which help sick animals live long enough to reach slaughter in conditions that could otherwise kill them. Producers, retailers, and the USDA understand the importance of these drugs for factory farming, but also want to cash in on consumer demand for natural products, so they skirt liability by ensuring that they can meet the legal requirements for verifying the claims they make about their products without actually verifying them. Consumers and animals pay the price while industry profits.

Demanding that retailers and third party certifications test for drugs in products labeled “all natural” and “antibiotic-free” won’t eliminate the use of these drugs on factory farms. It’s time for GAP and Whole Foods to commit to phase out all factory farm practices for the products they certify and sell, and to do more to promote plant-based alternatives until they can live up to their claims. Sign our petition to stop Whole Foods’ humanewashing today.



Price, L., Rogers, L., and Lo, K. Science. 2022. “Policy reforms for antibiotic use claims in livestock.”


See Farm Forward’s analysis of the results of the groundbreaking Science study here.


For example, more than 160 countries including the EU, Russia, and China have banned ractopamine, a growth promoter, for use in livestock.


United States Department of Agriculture. 2019. “United States National Residue Program for Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products: FY 2019 Residue Sample Results.”