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Consumers Union Steps Up Antibiotic Campaign

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Watch out. Here comes Consumers Union.

One of the nation’s most trusted non-profits delivered more than a half-million signatures to a Trader Joe’s supermarket in New York’s Union Square neighborhood demanding the chain stop selling meat raised on antibiotics as part of the group's recently launched Meat Without Drugs campaign.

Why Trader Joe’s? Jean Halloran, CU’s director of food policy initiatives, says it’s because the chain already offers some proteins that are free of medication.

“The government is not fixing it, the livestock and drug companies are not going to do this on their own, but the buying public can,” said Halloran. “And supermarkets are the agent of the buying public.”

CU is focusing on Trader Joe's for other reasons. Some 80% of its products are private label, which gives it more direct control over its suppliers.  Also, in recent years, Trader Joe's has made a commitment to other sustainable purchasing practices, such as only carrying eggs from cage-free hens and sourcing its private label products with non-GMO ingredients.

The visuals caught the attention of passers-by. There were the boxes of petitions stacked on the sidewalk, and a pig mascot clad in a Hawaiian shirt similar to those worn by Trader Joe’s staffers. His sign pleaded, “Get me off drugs!”

The issue is at the top of CU’s action list. A report published in its own Consumers Report magazine in June noted that 86% of consumers polled want the choice of purchasing antibiotic-free meat and poultry, and more than 60% said they would be willing to pay up to five cents more a pound for the option.

Secret shoppers visited 136 supermarkets in 23 states, including at least five stores belonging to each of the 13 largest (by sales) supermarket chains in the nation, and collected data on more than 1,100 different “no antibiotics” meat and poultry items.

From the June press release: “Shoppers also found wide selections of meat and poultry raised without antibiotics at Giant, Hannaford, Shaw’s and Stop & Shop. Shoppers at Sam’s Club, Food 4 Less, Food Lion, and Save-A-Lot stores, however, could not find any meat or poultry indicating they were raised without antibiotics.”

What should concern retailers — particularly those cited in the report — is that the petitions and their high-profile delivery mark a significant departure from the organization’s long, more staid history of pursuing change through regulatory channels.

“Most of the time we’re devoting our energies to changing public policy by advocating before Congress or state legislatures,” Michael McCauley, media director for CU. “But we’ve been working on this issue for decades and government has not acted.”

The Trader Joe’s event demonstrates that Consumers Union is willing to step beyond its traditional role of publicizing shoddy products or fraudulent services, and knock on the doors of private industry as direct representatives of the consumer. Given CU’s street cred, popular and trusted Consumer Reports magazine and untarnished image, it’s a knock that retailers would be wise to promptly answer. 

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