Beyond the Label: What ‘Raised Without Antibiotics’ Really Means

Antibiotic use on farm animals is a more layered, debated issue than people might assume

If you’re deciding between two packages of ground chicken at the supermarket and one is labeled “raised without antibiotics,” while the other is not, which are you going to pick?

Antibiotic-free seems like the obvious answer, right? But if we asked you why, the answer becomes less clear. Much like ‘natural,’ ‘organic,’ and ‘cage-free,’ ‘raised without antibiotics’ has become one of those food labels we’re programmed to see as the right dietary choice — yet the reality behind the label is knowledge few fully possess.

Are antibiotics really that harmful to raising slaughter animals? Investigators at NPR’s food blog, The Salt, looked into the issue because, like us, they “needed a little clarity” beyond the label. Here is what they found.

Most antibiotics are available to farmers over the counter. While antibiotics are frequently used to avoid infections, they’re also used to promote growth.

80 percent of antibiotic use in the United States goes toward farm animals.

The concern with this practice, however, comes back to antibiotics for humans. If we’re constantly consuming animals raised on antibiotics, will our bodies become resistant to such drugs when we actually need them?

This can happen — but rarely. According to Scott Hurd, a veterinarian at Iowa State University, “All published, peer-reviewed scientific articles to date have demonstrated negligible risk from on-farm antibiotic use.”


While using antibiotics on farm animals to prevent disease is necessary, using them to increase growth is not. The Food and Drug Administration is steadily making efforts to control antibiotic use on farms and allow the drugs’ “use to only address diseases and health problems.”