Media Moves

Coverage: Reducing antibiotics in food

September 4, 2014

Posted by Liz Hester

Perdue, producer of many of the chickens that end up on plates across the country, said it plans to stop using antibiotics in its hatcheries. It’s a huge gamble and one that demonstrates just how vocal some consumers have become about how food is grown and the business behind it.

The New York Times story by Stephanie Strom had these details about why the company is making the move:

Perdue, one of the country’s largest poultry producers, said on Wednesday that it would no longer use antibiotics in its hatcheries, one of the last places it was using such drugs routinely.

The elimination of antibiotic use in hatching chicks is the latest step the company has taken over more than a decade to address concerns among consumers and regulators about how animal husbandry practices have contributed to antibiotic resistance.

Fewer than 5 percent of Perdue’s chickens today are receiving antibiotics that are also administered to humans, although a bigger percentage are still getting antibiotics used on animals only.

“The hatchery was the last step we recently accomplished,” said Jim Perdue, the chairman and grandson of the family-owned company’s founder. “We’ve gotten calls from different groups watching our products and asking questions about our use of antibiotics, and we thought, ‘Why don’t we just talk about it openly instead of just talking to one group?’  ”

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the first time quantified the toll that antibiotic resistance is taking on human health, estimating that each year, at least two million American fall ill because of antibiotic-resistant infections and at least 23,000 die from them. The C.D.C. called the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry “unnecessary” and “inappropriate.”

The Reuters story by Lisa Baertlein quoted a company executive as saying the move would eliminate animals receiving human antibiotics for about 95 percent of the chicken it produces:

“By no longer using any antibiotics in our hatcheries or any human antibiotics in feed, we’ve reached the point where 95 percent of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics,” said Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue Foods’ senior vice president of food safety, quality and live operations.

Stewart-Brown added that Perdue’s antibiotic-free hatchery policy exceeds the Federal Drug Administration’s voluntary guidelines for antibiotic use in food animals, as well as the standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification program.

Perdue said it does use an animal-only antibiotic to control an intestinal parasite, and will use antibiotics to treat and control illness in sick flocks.

Bruce Horovitz wrote for USA Today that even company executives have acknowledged how big a shift this is for the firm:

The privately held food giant, whose combined meat and grain sales will top $7 billion this year, still will use human antibiotics with about 5% of chickens — but only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian for a specific problem, the company says.

“This is a big deal,” says CEO Jim Perdue, the grandson of the company’s founder, in an interview with USA TODAY. “We listen to consumers.”

He says it’s one of the biggest moves the 94-year-old company has made since it pioneered brand advertising for chicken — once viewed as a commodity product — more than 40 years ago.

This evolution away from human antibiotics has taken place over 12 years, says Jim Perdue, and the company’s last hatchery that used human antibiotics stopped this summer. The company declined to say where that hatchery is located.

NPR’s Dan Charles had this explanation of why the company used antibiotics in the first place:

More than 1 million eggs arrive here every week from breeding farms a few hours away in West Virginia. Unlike the eggs you buy in the store, these eggs are fertilized; there are embryos inside.

They go into massive heated incubators for 18 days. Then, when they’re almost ready to hatch, they’re wheeled out into a hallway. Tray by tray, they go through a vaccination robot.

A bank of needles descends. Each needle punctures an egg and squirts in a bit of fluid: a vaccine against a common chicken virus.

Bruce Stewart-Brown, a veterinarian and senior vice president for Perdue, tells me that the fluid contains a vaccine against Marek’s disease, a highly contagious common chicken virus. He points out a tiny hole in each egg, where the needle went in.

But that hole is a risk, because the last thing you want is bacteria getting in and infecting the embryo.

That’s why, in many hatcheries across the country, these machines also inject an antibiotic called gentamicin, along with the vaccine.

It’s even allowed in production of organic chicken.

Wired reported in a story by Maryn McKenna that the company was also going to switch the diet of its birds:

To compensate for the lost effect of the antibiotics the company relinquished, Stewart-Brown said they also improved chickens’ diets by removing animal byproducts and going to an all-vegetable feed of soybean meal and corn oil; using prebiotics and probiotics including “oregano and yucca” and “yogurt type things”; increasing the number of vaccinations chickens receive; and doubling down on cleaning chicken “houses,” the long sheds that can hold tens of thousands of broilers at a time.

“This doesn’t mean we are done,” he said. “We constantly learn new things and try to evolve our program.”

Campaigners for reduced antibiotic use mostly supported the comprehensive moves.

Gail Hansen, a pubic health veterinarian with the Pew Charitable Trusts, told me: “This is a lot of what we have been asking for, for six years, so it is pretty positive,” adding that she would like to see the company be more specific about the amounts of ionophores it uses and about better husbandry practices that could help boost broiler chickens’ immune systems.

This is a good move for consumers. It will likely hurt short-term profitability, but the amount of positive press and long-term consumer confidence will help offset any losses. Improving consumer health will improve Perdue’s brand, making this a smart business decision.

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