Animals raised with no antibiotics are less likely to contain drug-resistant "superbug" bacteria than those routinely given antibiotics, according to a new report.
Ground beef from conventionally raised cattle -- which are given antibiotics to promote growth and reduce disease -- were twice as likely to carry drug-resistant bacteria than that from cattle that received no antibiotics, according to findings published this week by Consumer Reports.
"Eliminating routine antibiotic use is an important step in protecting the effectiveness of these medicines for future generation," Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports, said in a statement. "Using drugs to promote growth and to compensate for hygiene problems puts everyone at risk."
Consumer Reports said it tested hundreds of packages of meat and poultry for bacteria and antibiotic resistance over the past three years.
About 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to animals raised for food production, according to Consumer Reports. Should an animal become sick on an organic farm, the animal can be treated with antibiotics but then they can no longer be designated "USDA Organic" or under the "No Antibiotic" label.
The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been a concern for doctors and medical researchers for decades. Every year, approximately 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections, according to the CDC, which has designated this week as the first Antibiotic Awareness Week.
The American Medical Association released a statement this week calling for increased surveillance of drug-resistant bacteria and to bring an "end to the practice of using medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in animals."
"We are currently faced with not only a decline in the effectiveness of available antibiotics, but also a decline in the development of new antibiotics," AMA Board Member Dr. William E. Kobler said in a statement Monday. "That's why it is extremely important that we continue to take steps to ensure the appropriate use of antibiotics across all health care settings. It will take a coordinated, multi-sector, and multi-pronged approach to address this public health epidemic."
In recent years, companies including Tyson, McDonald's and Subway have pledged to reduce the use of meat raised on antibiotics. "But whether such measures will end up significantly reducing antibiotic use remains to be seen," Gail Hansen, a veterinarian who has more than 25 years of experience in veterinary public health and infectious disease, told Consumer Reports.
"In the last few years we've witnessed some of the bacteria most commonly found in food -- germs such as salmonella and campylobacter -- become increasingly resistant to some important antibiotics," Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, said in a statement released by Consumer Reports.
Meat producers all noted that they could not comment on the specifics of the report without access to the methodology and data.
The National Chicken Council added that it believes consumers should have different choices that reflect both affordability, personal values and taste.
"The National Chicken Council believes medically important antibiotics should only be used on the farm to treat and prevent disease, and not be administered to promote growth," it said in the statement. "We all have a role to play -- including doctors and farmers -- in preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics, both in humans and animals."
The council said by December 2016, human antibiotics would only be used in chickens to address disease and not promote growth. "Whatever chicken that consumers choose to purchase with their food dollars, they can be confident in its safety ... any possible bacteria, antibiotic resistant or not, is killed by proper cooking," the council said.
The U.S. Poultry and Egg Association questioned Consumer Reports' use of the term "superbug," citing the Food and Drug Administration as saying "it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria to one, or even a few, antibiotics as 'Superbugs' if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics." But the association added that it is working with the FDA to phase out antibiotic use.
"The poultry industry supports the responsible use of antibiotics in animal agriculture," the association said in a statement to ABC News. "Our industry has fully cooperated with the Food and Drug Administration's phasing out of antibiotics that are most critical to human medicine."
The group said even though they are currently used minimally, by December 2016, "antibiotics that are important to human medicine will be used to address disease only, not to promote growth," and will be available only via prescription.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has previously been critical of Consumer Reports' methodology and conclusions in a related report and said that consumers can "feel confident in the overall safety of their beef."
"Leading consumers to believe that one way of producing food -- whether that's organic, grass-fed or conventionally raised beef -- is safer than another plays off of consumer emotion without giving them any real facts," Mandy Carr Johnson, senior executive director of Science and Product Solutions for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said in a statement.
"As an industry, our number one priority is producing the safest beef possible and over the years, as a result of significant investments in beef safety research and technology implementation, beef is the safest it has ever been with a greater than 90 percent reduction in bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7 and significant reductions in Salmonella in recent years," Johnson added. "The beef community continues to invest millions of dollars in developing new safety technologies with the goal of eliminating foodborne illness so that we can provide consumers with the safest, highest quality beef possible. Regardless of what type of beef consumers buy, they can feel confident in the overall safety of their beef."
ABC News Chief Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser explained that people wanting to avoid meat raised on antibiotics should look for the label "USDA Organic" or meat that says "No Antibiotics."
"I think it's going to cost a little more because they do grow faster with antibiotics, but I don't think it's the way to go," Besser said.