Local farms, restaurants responding to growing concerns of antibiotics used in meats

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - Americans love meat and lot's of it. By next year, the USDA estimates meat consumption is will reach a record 200 pounds per year per person.

With that much meat on our menus, do you ever wonder if there are benefits to paying more for those produced more naturally, specifically without antibiotics?

It's been in the headlines over the last few years and we're continuing to see restaurants making the switch, from Chipotle to Chick-fil-A. Even massive poultry supplier Perdue is vowing to move to antibiotic-free chicken.

When it comes to feeding Americans' insatiable hunger for meat, some Eastern Carolina restaurants are also jumping on the bandwagon, saying they are trying to meet a growing demand of customers who want to feel good about what they're served.

"You can actually taste the difference with the love and the care they put into the animals compared to commercially raised meats," says Tobias Boutilier, the executive chef at Starlight Farm and Cafe in Greenville.​

For their meats, they look to local farmers armed with shirts donning their motto "Our animals don't do drugs."

"We are a Never Ever product certification and that means from birth to harvest that cow or pig has never been exposed to any type of antibiotic or hormone," explains Mary Betty Kearney with Nooherooka Natural.

The Kearney family started the farm just outside of Snow Hill about 15 years ago when her husband, Ossie Kearney, says they were seeing a growing demand across the country for sustainably farmed meat, which means farming techniques that protect the environment, public health and animal welfare.

"My mother used to say you are what you eat and I think that's true now," he says.

Ossie says the demand even forces people onto waiting lists for their meats.

At the Leroy James Farmers' Market in Pitt County, Dawn Shelton is shopping for her family of three. She says she looks for things like grass fed or organic.

"I just know that what we put in our bodies is what makes our bodies tick and I can feel the difference when I eat different kinds of foods, vegetables and meats and I just think it's really important to put good, healthy things in our bodies," she tells WITN.

The Kearneys say an organic certification is too expensive for a small farm like theirs, so when you come to a local famers' market, you can talk directly with the farmers themselves about their practices.

The Organic Trade Association says it is millennials that are the driving force behind the sustainable movement, especially young parents.

"They're actually very concerned with where their money goes and what it goes towards," says Bert James.

He is the owner of Homegrown Agriculture, which consists of a farm in Bethel and is an agriculture consulting business to boost other Eastern Carolina farms.

"At the end of the day, it's numbers," he says regarding the costs to the farmer and for the consumer. "It's not so much antibiotics or resistance or anything else, it really starts with numbers."

For his farm, James doesn't use antibiotics or hormones, but he estimates that sustainably raised meat can cost upwards of 40-percent more than conventionally raised meat.

"What I've found out is this is a lot of work, like a lot of work," he says. "There's a reason that hog houses, chicken houses were erected and there's concrete everywhere and all this mechanization. It's a pretty smart thing that humans do, we get more efficient when we see problems and we fix it."

But what is the cost of that convenience?

"When you put a bunch of animals together in one place, when one gets sick, they all get sick really quickly," James explains.

That's where the antibiotics come in to play and a lot of them. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates 70-percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on animals to treat and prevent illness and promote growth, but it has its downfalls for animals as it does for humans.

"Anytime that you do a blanket application of anything, Mother Nature is going to find a way around it," James says.

Dr. Michael Wheeler is an associate professor at the ECU Department of Nutrition Science. He says, "Treating with antibiotics, if you kill a lot of the good bacteria, you create an environment that allows the resistant bacteria to now predominate and grow."

The Centers for Disease Control says those superbugs can not only stick with the animal to the supermarket shelves, they can end up in the animal's waste and irrigated water systems on the farms that are then used on produce. That is one way you can get Salmonella or E-coli.

The CDC also says more than 400,000 Americans become sick after coming into contact with antibiotic-resistant foodborne bacteria every year. The concern is that it may be more difficult to find an antibiotic that works if you become sick from this bacteria.

Nooherooka Natural, Homegrown Agriculture and Dr. Wheeler all agree this is a problem waiting to explode in the future, with no new class of antibiotics developed since the 80's.

"There is quite a bit of evidence about the increase in antibiotic use both in human and agricultural uses and the persistence and growth of these superbugs," Dr. Wheeler says. "I don't think there's any debate about that."

But he says that's why washing and cooking food properly is so important. "Regardless of the superbugs and if they're persisting, much of those risks are mitigated by the way the meat is handled."

As for any health risks from the antibiotics themselves to humans, the animals are required to go through a withdraw period before going to production and the meat is periodically tested to ensure there is no antibiotic residue.

While banned in Europe, when it comes to added hormones, the FDA says it's also safe for consumers.

However, some of the concern is those growth hormones spur production of other hormones like insulin growth factor 1.

"The evidence for insulin growth factor 1 in cancer is very well established," says Dr. Wheeler.

That's why you see many milk bottles now labeled as rBGH or rBST free.

There is also concern those added hormones are causing early puberty in teens, however, Dr. Wheeler says added hormones shouldn't be a concern for consumers because it's in minuscule amounts compared to what is naturally found in humans and animals.

"Whether or not it's still a measurable, significant affect is still debatable," he says.

So while there's concern, Dr. Wheeler says he hasn't seen any research with hard evidence that conventionally raised meat is bad for your health.

However, he does agree that something needs to be done to curb the mass use of antibiotics for the future.

Buying sustainable or organic meat may just get down to personal choice and buy you piece of mind if you can afford it.

"The better bang for the buck," says Samatha Myers who was shopping at the farmers' market. She says price is her biggest focus. "With a family of five, it takes a lot to feed the kids."

When shopping at the grocery store, it's important to know what the labels require as some can be misleading.

The FDA does not allow hormones in poultry or pork products, but you may still see labels advertising that their product is hormone free. Thus this is a seemingly meaningless label.

As mentioned before, all meat is supposed to be antibiotic free on the store shelves due to that withdraw period, so an antibiotic free label is insignificant.

Another misleading label can be the term "natural" which is often found on meat packages. The USDA's definition is "A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed." As Mary Betty Kearney explains, you can still have an animal raised with added hormones and antibiotics and have it still be labeled as natural.

Organic means the animal must be allowed access to the outdoors and cannot be fed animal by-products or genetically modified feed. The use of hormones and antibiotics are prohibited.

Certified Humane requires animals to never be kept in cages or stalls and must be able to move around. It also says they must be fed quality feed with no animal by-products, antibiotics or hormones, but the animals can be given antibiotics if they're sick.

Grass fed, pasture raised, cage free and vegetarian fed are referring to the animal's access to outdoors and food and do not specify the use of hormones and antibiotics.

You can also find labels that specifically say raised without added hormones or antibiotics.