News Stories

Playing Chicken With Our Health

Marian Burros, in the February 10 issue of the New York Times, reports that the poultry industry has quietly cut back on its use of antibiotics in chicken feed. Public health and consumer groups have been demanding this for years, since it contributes to the growing resistance to antibiotics that fight disease-causing bacteria in humans.

Poultry farmers have justified giving antibiotics to their flocks by saying that it prevents infection in chickens as well as enhancing their growth. Now the industry has begun to reduce the amounts of antibiotics they feed their chickens. Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Foster Farms, which together produce a third of the chickens consumed by Americans each year, say they have voluntarily taken most or all of the antibiotics out of what they feed healthy chickens. Foster Farms says it uses no antibiotics at all, except to treat sick birds. Perdue says it is using only antibiotics that are not the same as or similar to those used in human medicine. Tyson says it has cut back on antibiotics that are similar to those used on humans, and now uses only two when a flock is at risk of disease.

It turns out that this wasn?t done as a reaction to consumer protests, but because an antibiotic used to treat sick birds is related to Cipro, the drug used to treat anthrax in humans. We can guess that the new Homeland Security office had a quiet word with the farmers, so they agreed to do for the Feds what they have long refused to do for their customers. They may also have made the change because McDonald?s, Wendy?s and Popeye?s are now refusing to buy chicken that has been treated with antibiotics.

There is still no way to know whether if you?re eating chicken treated with antibiotics, unless you buy organic. This is because, when it?s necessary to treat sick chickens, the entire flock must be treated as well, and flocks often number more than 30,000.

In the absence of any monitoring by the federal government, some people remain skeptical about the assertions that antibiotic use has been reduced. Farmers are not required to report antibiotic use in animals, so the reduction cannot be documented. Poultry producers have defended the use of all antibiotics for more than 20 years. The National Chicken Council maintains that antibiotics have always been used responsibly. ?People well aware of antibiotic resistance in the industry are skeptical that we are the root of the problems,? says Richard Lobb, spokesman for the council.

?If they are not using millions of pounds of antibiotics in chickens, there is that much less pressure on disease-causing organisms to develop resistance,? says Dr. Margaret Mellon, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. ?That means the antibiotics will work at lower concentrations.?

?I was surprised but delighted that companies are making the changes they say they are making,? says Rebecca Goldburg, of Environmental Defense. ?For many years the animal industry has disregarded or even denied concerns about antibiotic resistance, but this shows they are beginning to take them seriously.?

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 26.6 millions pounds of antibiotics are used for animals each year, with only 2 million pounds of that used to treat sick animals. These figures are only estimates because farmers can buy many antibiotics without prescriptions.

Tyson says it made the decision for economic reasons. ?We looked at the cost-benefit ratio of antibiotics and determined we could just as effectively do it without them,? says Ed Nicholson, a company spokesman. ?If we can raise birds without doing it, why do it??

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