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Is the end of routine antibiotics in chicken on the horizon? If so, what’s beyond?

By: Cameron Harsh, Senior Manager of Organic and Animal Policy

February 24, 2017
Center for Food Safety

When advocates began pressuring the food animal industry to stop routinely dosing entire herds and flocks with antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease, the industry balked. They said it couldn’t be done, that animals would suffer, and that the price of meat would skyrocket. After years of work and, sadly, the increasing severity of antibiotic-resistant infections, much of the chicken industry has finally committed to eliminating routine uses of medically important antibiotics.

Most recently, Tyson Foods announced its intention to raise its entire line of Tyson-branded chicken products without any antibiotics. This goes beyond its previous commitment to end routine use of medically important antibiotics by September 2017. The policy still allows antibiotics for treating sick birds when prescribed by a veterinarian.

This announcement matters. Tyson is the largest chicken producer in the United States and the second in the world. Action focused solely on medically important antibiotics addresses a critical public health crisis, but may not force other improvements in livestock production needed to protect human health, animal welfare, and the environment. But, we also must determine whether Tyson is making an honest commitment to public and animal health, or is simply capitalizing on an escalating trend to capture a lucrative market.

So, why does Tyson’s announcement matter?

  • It recognizes the need to address non-human antibiotics. Antibiotics that are important to human medicine are not the only antimicrobial agents commonly given to livestock for production and efficiency, rather than for animal health. In fact, recent research shows that misuse of animal-only antibiotics drives resistance in bacteria that make animals sick, like those that cause pneumonia in cows. In addition, research has demonstrated that routine use of any antibiotics has the potential cause human pathogens to develop resistance to crucial medicines.
  • It will demonstrate to other large chicken producers that it can be done. While research has shown the necessity and feasibility of eliminating routine uses of all antibiotics in food animals, the proof is in the pudding. It takes key actors willing to step up and find solutions to signal to the rest of the industry that it’s possible. If this is an honest commitment from Tyson, the company can pave the way for more sweeping change.
  • It covers billions of birds. Tyson’s facilities process 39 million chickens per week, over 2 billion per year. By relying on better management practices to protect the health and safety of birds rather than routine antibiotics, that represents a significant amount of antibiotics removed from food animal production. Perdue, the 4th largest U.S. producer, made a similar commitment last year covering its roughly 675,000 birds per year.

But, what don’t we know from this announcement?

  • If they will do it. Commitments are great. Verifiable action is critical. An independent body must regularly inspect the company’s producers and certify that they are following the standards. To announce a plan without a verification system is not a guarantee that it will be carried out or implemented effectively. Tyson has stated that it has successfully eliminated almost all use of medically important antibiotics since committing to doing so in 2011. But, data from FDA indicate that annual sales of antibiotics have continued to increase.
  • Exactly how they plan to do it. Eliminating routine use of antibiotics must be done in a manner that protects food safety and animal welfare. Sufficient space, a clean environment, adequate lighting, nutritious diets, and natural growth can all contribute to animal health and immunity. It is unclear at this time what additional changes Tyson plans to undertake, but removing antibiotics without implementing these other practices puts chickens and humans at risk.
  • If they will keep moving forward. Tyson owns a number of small subsidiaries that produce chicken, but this commitment applies only to Tyson-specific brands. If this is truly an act of concern for public health, animal welfare, and food safety, rather than a marketing ploy, all chickens under the company’s purview must be raised according to the same standards. And, Tyson must not stop at chicken. Antibiotics are routinely used in beef, pork, and turkey, which have longer lifespans and require larger doses.

Where do we go from here?

Potentially, Tyson is taking a next step in the fight to eliminate unnecessary, non-therapeutic uses of drugs in animals raised for food. If they make good on this commitment, we hope they don’t stop there.

  • We need progress for other species. Though the chicken industry has made significant movement to address routine use of antibiotics, the other major food animal industries lag behind. Each species presents unique challenges in implementing better management practices, but producers must begin identifying solutions immediately. Tyson and a few others have taken tentative steps on pork by creating small antibiotic-free brands separate from their main conventional production, but these industries have a long way to go.
  • We need action on other drugs. A number of non-antibiotic drugs, like hormones, beta-agonists, and even insecticides, are allowed in food animals to promote growth or prevent disease. These drugs raise significant concerns regarding the human, environmental, and animal health impacts from their use and their use should be prohibited.
  • We need sufficient, reliable data. Information on the amounts and purposes of drugs currently given to food animals is not available. Producers are required to keep records on the drugs they administer, but the government does not collect or publish that data. Without it, we have no way of knowing if company commitments are actually leading to reductions in use.
  • We need strong federal regulation. Without federal policies effectively prohibiting non-therapeutic use of animal drugs, we have to rely on piecemeal action from the industry. This not only means that some producers can get away with routinely using antibiotics and other drugs, but the best actors can also fall back on old practices if they no longer see the benefits of good animal husbandry.

Eliminating non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics and other drugs is critical to protecting food safety and animal welfare. But, we also need broader reforms in food animal production. Most food animals in the U.S. are raised in industrial confinement systems, like Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These systems not only put animal health at risk from overcrowding, poor sanitation, and intense growth demands, they also pollute nearby soil and water, contribute to climate change, and endanger public health. They have operated at such massive scales due largely to quick fixes like antibiotics and lax regulation. Humane, organic, or pasture-based producers, on the other hand, generate less waste, do not rely on non-therapeutic drugs, and yield healthier animal products.

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