CHICAGO — Antibiotic-free meat is more than just a controversial marketing slogan. It’s the law of the land.

“The FDA has very strict guidelines and with USDA on inspection about residues in the meat. There can be no antibiotics or antibiotic metabolite in the meat or milk that is consumed by people and that is a law in his country. It’s in our food regulations and our food laws,” said Randy Singer, a veterinarian and associate professor of infectious disease epidemiology and ecology at the University of Minnesota.

He was one of three panelists for a journalist luncheon and media briefing hosted at the Capital Grille in Chicago by the International Food Information Council Foundation. The briefing was titled “Antibiotics in Food Producing Animals: Who’s At Risk? Who Benefits?”

Singer was joined on the panel by Will Gilmer, an Alabama dairy farmer and social media presence who also is one of the Faces of Farming and Ranching of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, and Keith Ayoob, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

The goal of the briefing was to provide journalists of various backgrounds information from three different perspectives and to get questions answered.

The briefing was born from the results of an annual consumer survey, the Food and Health Survey.

“We look at nutrition issues, but we also look at food safety issues. We track the confidence in the U.S. food supply by consumers,” said Marianne Smith Edge, vice president for nutrition and food safety for the IFIC Foundation.

“Even though the majority are still very confident, well over 70 percent, this was the first year that we saw a significant decline, more people basically saying that they at least have a little concern about the safety of the food,” said Smith Edge, in her remarks to welcome the guests to the luncheon.

“When we asked over the years what are you most concerned about and, obviously, microbial is still most important, but we have seen tracking in chemicals in food. We never know exactly what folks mean by that when we look at food and health, but (concerns about) antibiotics in food definitely has increased. Thirty two percent this year said they at least have some concern about antibiotics in food,” Smith Edge said.

She said that while IFIC is funded by the agriculture, food and beverage industries, the organization’s goal is to bring science to groups such as consumers, health professionals, government and the media.

Matt Raymond, senior director of media relations, asked Singer to talk about antibiotic resistance and how much the use of drugs in animal agriculture contributes to resistance in humans.

“All uses of antibiotics have the potential to both create and aid the dissemination of resistance — we just don’t have a really good handle on the frequency with which that happens,” Singer said.

He noted that antibiotics have been used in animal agriculture for six decades. He attributed much of the resistance that has developed to use in humans.

“Once an antibiotic becomes commonly used in human medicine, you see this emergence of resistance. It’s hard to attribute at least a majority, a significant chunk, of that resistance to animal agriculture,” he said.

Singer clarified that there are four approved labels for antibiotic use in animal agriculture that include the growth promotion/feed efficiency label, the disease prevention label, disease control and disease treatment.

The growth promotion/feed efficiency label is probably the most misunderstood, Singer said. He said researchers have come to understand that those work much like probiotics work in humans, by keeping the animal’s gut healthy and functioning and thus keeping the animal healthier.

“That label is probably one that is misunderstood about how it acts, but we’re going to be phasing it out,” he said.

Singer said he does not want to see government step into the role of scientists and researchers.

“I appreciate that FDA wants to regulate that. What I don’t want to see is politicians making that decision and we legislate a ban,” he said.

Singer also pointed out that the unintended consequences are yet to be fully understood of ending the use of those supplements.

“Agriculture will be given a couple years to adapt to this change because there will be unintended consequences of removing that growth promotion label,” he said.

Singer said one reason for the misunderstanding about what role antibiotics in animal agriculture play in human resistance is due to how media cover the issue.

“The trouble that we often have to face is it’s easy to grab a headline when you say something like superbugs are in your meat and it’s due to the use of antibiotics on farms. It’s really hard to have a message that says farmers are doing it right and they work with veterinarians to make a healthier food supply. There’s no story,” he said.

Singer noted that FDA directives #309 and #213 are the documents that outline how the elimination of the growth promotion label will be accomplished.

He added that the additional oversight doesn’t mean that all antibiotics will be restricted from use in livestock.

“One way you treat a herd of animals, a flock of chickens, is through administering the antibiotic in the water or the feed because it’s how you can administer it to an entire group of animals,” he said.

Singer added that the process that is in place to oversee and maintain food safety and prevent foodborne illnesses also extends to the presence of antibiotics in the food supply.

“The FDA has very strict guidelines and with USDA on inspection about residues in the meat. When we apply an antibiotic to an animal, you have to wait a period of time before that animal enters the food supply and into commerce,” he said.

Singer also pointed out that he doesn’t believe animals treated with antibiotics pose any more threat to humans than those untreated animals.

“Is there an enhanced risk because that animal was treated with an antibiotic? I don’t believe so. I can look through the literature and find numerous examples where the antibiotic-resistant bacteria or just bacteria in general are actually at a higher level in animals that are raised in an antibiotic-free and organic environment versus animals raised in a conventional setting,” he said. “We need to differentiate the potential risks.”