Amid growing consumer awareness about antibiotics used to raise food animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is taking a look at some of the claims made on meat packages, including “antibiotic free.” In a letter responding to concerns raised by Consumers Union, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said FSIS has developed updated guidance material on labels that it will send to meat companies and the agency plans to investigate unapproved label claims. “Under FSIS guidelines, when producers/companies request to make the marketing claim “raised without antibiotics” on their labels, we inform them that this means “no antibiotics in their feed water or injection including no ionophores” during the animal’s life,” said Vilsack. CU sent a letter to USDA in June asking that the department look into three unapproved label claims that the group found on meat packages: antibiotic free, no antibiotic growth promotants, and no antibiotic residues. In a recent shopping survey, CU found more than 20 different antibiotic-related claims on meat packages (see the group’s list to the left). CU points out that these claims may confuse or mislead consumers. For example, the claim “no antibiotic residues” may not mean that the animals were raised without antibiotics. In fact, the animals could have received antibiotics for much of their life, but then been taken off the drugs before slaughter – as is often required by law for animals destined for human consumption – so that there is no, or very little, remaining residue in the meat. The letter said that FSIS would “investigate the validity of the claims” and asked CU for copies of the labels they found so the agency could contact the companies directly. Vilsack also said that producers can make claims about antibiotics that do not necessarily apply to the animal’s whole life: “If the claim is not made for the animal’s entire life, the label can describe the number of days addressed by the claim as verified by a particular company of producer. Such a claim might be “raised without antibiotics the last 120 days prior to finish.” In their letter to the agency, CU urged USDA to make labeling clearer for consumers, pointing out that consumers could be confused by a label discussing a withdrawal period, “especially if they didn’t have access to the fine print on the company website while making their purchase at the meat counter.” “We urge USDA to approve claims made on products that are clear and comprehensible to the consumer, especially where consumers may be misled to believe that a meat product is raised without antibiotics.” Both letters can be found here.