In 2020, Farm Forward began testing for antibiotic residues in samples of Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Animal Welfare Certified™ meat from Whole Foods Market. Our testing is ongoing, but the early findings are troubling: despite their claims, GAP and Whole Foods have failed to prevent animals treated with drugs from entering their supply chains, raising questions about all of the claims they make about their meat products. Our results were confirmed by the findings of an extensive antibiotic testing program, which revealed that a significant percentage of GAP-certified, “antibiotic free” cattle came from feedlots where animals tested positive for antibiotics. In this post we offer details about the nature of our testing program, the results of our investigation, and the implications of our findings.
Due to their poor genetic health and the crowded conditions in which they’re confined, animals on factory farms are often given drugs in subtherapeutic doses to promote growth and keep them alive in conditions that would otherwise stunt their growth and even kill them. Consumers pay more for products bearing the Animal Welfare Certified™ mark in part because GAP prohibits the use of antibiotics for animals within its program, and for good reason—antibiotics are used to treat sick animals, and sick animals suffer.
After serving on GAP’s board of directors since its inception, Farm Forward resigned in April 2020 because of concerns that the vast majority of meat products certified by GAP still come from factory farms. Because GAP has shown a pattern of catering to the industry by welcoming modified factory farms into its program, we suspected that drugs may be present in the meat it certifies. In 2017, Farm Forward used its position on GAP’s board to push for antibiotic testing, but GAP’s leadership refused. Because nobody is testing meat to verify claims made by meat producers, the only way to determine whether GAP is living up to its promises was to begin testing products ourselves.
In 2020, Farm Forward began purchasing GAP-certified meat from Whole Foods locations in Chicago, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco for testing by Trilogy Analytical Laboratory and Health Research Institute, two state-of-the-art, ISO-accredited testing facilities. Meat samples are frozen immediately after purchase and shipped overnight to the laboratory, where they’re stored in lab-grade refrigerators until they can be tested, typically within days. To ensure samples aren’t contaminated, we follow strict operating procedures for our tissue sampling and shipping, and we keep detailed records along the way to guarantee the provenance of each product. Samples are tested using mass spectrometry, the same technique used by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other food safety agencies.1
Our first positive result, for an antibiotic called monensin, came from a sample of ground beef purchased from a Whole Foods store in San Francisco. Monensin, which is in a class of drugs called ionophores, is a feed additive used widely as a growth promoter and prophylactic antibiotic for cattle raised for meat. Because it serves the dual purpose of increasing yield while also preventing illness, monensin is known to offer a return on investment of roughly $20 per animal.2 As a result, meat producers have a tremendous incentive to use drugs like monensin as widely as possible. The product that tested positive was USDA Certified Organic and Animal Welfare Certified™ by GAP—and monensin is prohibited by both certifications.
Our testing also discovered residues of two antiparasitic drugs, fenbendazole and clopidol, in multiple products. These and other antiparasitics are used routinely on factory farms, and while they are technically permitted within GAP’s Animal Welfare Certified™ program, their widespread use is worrisome.
The term “antibiotic” includes but obscures antiparasitic drugs as a discrete category of medication used within animal agriculture. The overuse of antiparasitics like fenbendazole and clopidol creates drug-resistant parasites in the same way the overuse of antibacterial antibiotics creates drug-resistant bacteria.3 The products we purchased from Whole Foods that tested positive for fenbendazole and clopidol were not Certified Organic, but the Certified Organic program has a blanket prohibition on synthetic antimicrobial drugs. GAP’s Animal Welfare Certified™ program, on the other hand, only prohibits a narrow range of specific drugs, which means producers have a great deal of freedom to administer a variety of medications on farms. As a result, these drugs are often used prophylactically to prevent densely packed animals on factory farms from falling ill instead of finding husbandry solutions to ongoing health and welfare problems. Nearly half (45 percent) of the cattle livers we tested contained traces of these compounds.
Without antibiotic and antiparasitic drugs, it would be less profitable to house cattle on feedlots, where they suffer in cramped, filthy conditions while being fed an unnatural diet that causes them discomfort.4 The stress of life on a feedlot compromises cows’ immune systems, making them even more susceptible to diseases that are abundant in crowded environments.5
GAP and other welfare certifications prohibit the use of drugs like monensin in part because they recognize that it is inhumane to use medications to address problems caused by the conditions in which animals are raised. The best way to address these issues is through husbandry techniques that have been used for centuries to keep cattle healthy, and by allowing them to spend their lives on pasture.
Although GAP and Whole Foods rightly prohibit the use of antibiotics (apart from animals who are diagnosed with an illness) within their supply chains, testing has revealed that they have failed to meet their promises. Unlike Whole Foods, conventional grocery chains like Kroger, Trader Joes, and Walmart do not prohibit the use of drugs within their supply chains, so they are used openly and abundantly. Whole Foods is supposed to be different. If premium retailers like Whole Foods won’t take steps to keep these drugs out of products on their shelves, no one will.
It’s time for GAP and Whole Foods to commit to phase out all factory farm practices for all of the operations they certify and sell, and to do more to promote plant-based alternatives until they can live up to their promises to shoppers. Sign our petition to stop Whole Foods’ humanewashing today.