The campaign by Consumers Union, the public policy arm of Consumer Reports, coincides with the release of a study that suggests 86 percent of Americans want meat raised without antibiotics, which can be a difficult task due to misleading and unapproved labels, Consumer Reports said last week.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this year issued guidelines to cut back the use of antibiotics in animals raised for food.
The voluntary initiative requires certain antibiotics not be used for so-called "production" purposes, such as to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency in an animal. The antibiotics would still be available to prevent, control or treat illnesses under veterinary supervision, officials said.
The FDA said it is trying to ensure medicines people need remain safe and effective. A drug may no longer be as effective in treating various illnesses or infections once bacteria or other microbes develop resistance to it, the agency said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, however, criticized the guidelines, saying they rely too heavily on the drug industry and animal producers to act voluntarily in the best interests of consumers.
"Decades of misuse have led to some common pathogens, like Salmonella, becoming more virulent and less treatable," the CSPI said in a statement. "The FDA knows it can no longer afford to ignore antibiotic resistance."
An estimated 70 percent of U.S. antibiotics sold are given to healthy farm animals, not to treat disease but to allow animals to live closer together and decrease the amount of time it takes to raise an animal and send it to market, the Union of Concerned Scientists said last month.
U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., last week renewed her call for the passage of legislation to regulate antibiotic use in animal feed
"The vast majority of Americans are concerned about the effect antibiotic overuse on farm animals is having on their health, and rightly so," Slaughter said Wednesday. "Unfortunately too many of our institutions, from the federal government to big business, have ignored this issue. But they won't be able to ignore us for much longer because, as this poll shows, more and more Americans are waking up to the dangers posed by the daily feeding of antibiotics to otherwise healthy animals."
Slaughter, who is a microbiologist, said antibiotic-resistant infections "kill more Americans than AIDS."
"That is a frightening figure, and to really get out in front of this problem we must eliminate the use of all classes of antibiotics in farm animals that are important to human health."
Slaughter has been pressing since 2007 for passage of legislation that would prevent the overuse of seven classes of antibiotics.
While consumers say they want to eat meat that isn't treated with antibiotics, finding it can be a challenge in some stores.
Consumer Reports said it sent "secret shoppers" out to 136 stores in five states, including stores operated by the 13 largest supermarket chains around the country. Shoppers found differences in the availability of meat and poultry raised without antibiotics. Whole Foods guarantees all meat and poultry sold is raised without antibiotics. Wide selections of meat and poultry raised without antibiotics was also found at Giant, Hannaford, Shaw's and Stop & Shop, Consumer Reports said.
Shoppers at Sam's Club, Food 4 Less, Food Lion, and Save-A-Lot said they couldn't find any meat or poultry labeled as being raised without antibiotics.
"We are asking supermarkets to step up to the challenge and tell their suppliers to procure only meat and poultry that has been raised without antibiotics," Jean Halloran, director of food policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, said in a statement. "Antibiotics are losing their potency in people, leading to a major national health crisis, and we need to drastically reduce their use in food animals."
A poll conducted by the group said 86 percent of consumers want meat raised without antibiotics in their local supermarket, and more than 60 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay at least 5 cents a pound more for meat raised without antibiotics. More than a third said they would pay $1 or more extra per pound.
Consumer Reports said 72 percent of respondents were extremely or very concerned about the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed.
Prices for antibiotic-free meat and poultry were not necessarily higher than similar meat products. Chicken raised without antibiotics was available for as little as $1.29 a pound at several stores including Trader Joe's, Publix and Jewel-Osco.
Labeling is an issue, Consumer Reports said, with more than 20 different labels related to antibiotic use, some of which can be misleading.
Consumer Reports said it has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture calling for a standard label and to publish the names of the companies who are approved to use it, and for what products.
"Consumers would benefit from one standard, meaningful, USDA-verified label that is consistent on all meat and poultry products from animals raised without antibiotics," said Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports.
The Consumers Union supermarket campaign, which has a companion Web site, www.meatwithoutdrugs.org, is starting their campaign with Trader Joe's.
"We're calling on Trader Joe's to only source their meat from animals raised without antibiotics," the group said on the Web site. "As one of the most progressive national retailers, Trader Joe's has already demonstrated care for their customers' health by saying no to GMOs [genetically modified organisms], artificial colors and trans fats in the products they sell. Trader Joe's can also be a leader by helping move the livestock industry in the right direction."
The survey of 1,000 U.S. adults was conducted in March by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.