Antibiotics and Chickens

Posted by in Lessons Learned

chicken antibioticsYou probably have heard about McDonald’s decision to phase out chickens raised with antibiotics. Now KFC is feeling the pressure to do the same. The question we need to ask is whether or not it is a necessary move.

Poultry Industry

To start, it’s a good idea to know what the situation is. We Americans love our chicken. Purdue University estimates that we consume 8 billion chickens each year. The United States is the world’s largest producer of poultry products.

The poultry industry, like the agricultural industry as a whole, has seen rapid development and improvement over the years. For example, a chicken in 1960 produced about 160 eggs on average. In 2009, that number doubled to 325.

The important point to remember when considering technological improvements is that any technology ultimately lowers an industry’s carbon footprint. And that’s a good thing. But what about this issue of antibiotics and chickens?

Chicken and Antibiotic Facts

First, we need to clarify the usage of antibiotics. The FDA, of course, controls this aspect of the industry. There are only three antibiotics permitted for use by the FDA. Organic poultry, including eggs, must be antibiotic free. Veterinarians are the only ones who can dispense antibiotics to livestock. If you doubt me, just trying getting your vet to fill a prescription for your pet if it hasn’t been seen.

As you’d know, antibiotics serve two purposes: preventing disease and treating it. As popular media would have us believe, antibiotics are the only tool in the poultry industry’s arsenal to accomplish these purposes.

However, vaccines and good management go a long way in preventing the use of antibiotics at all. It comes down to basic practices like handler hygiene, clean pens, fresh water, routine testing, among other animal welfare measures. According to the USDA ERS, 46 percent of producers did not use subtherapeutic antibiotics (STAs). We can’t therefore assume that antibiotic use is the only way that animals are kept healthy.

FDA Antibiotic Regulation

The move that McDonald’s made concerned antibiotics that humans use as well. The issue is the possible link with superbugs and antibiotic resistance. However, the FDA has been on the job over this concern. In April 2012, they banned the use of certain antibiotics that are also used in people.

Regulations such as The Animal Drug User Fee Act (ADUFA) keep tabs on antimicrobial drug sponsors and active ingredients in their products. Annual reports allow the FDA to track trends with antibiotic resistance and other human health impacts.

Antibiotic Withdrawal

Finally, the concern about antibiotic residue on chickens may be overblown by popular media. Big surprise. Federal regulations require a withdrawal period prior to slaughter so the animals can metabolize antibiotics and get them out of their systems.

Even if a manufacturer is using antibiotics, your chicken dinner won’t be laden with residue. (As an FYI, the same regulations apply to other livestock as well.) To put it simply, you are not ingesting antibiotics even with the poultry products that McDonalds sells that were from chickens given antibiotics. It’s all bunk that the popular media has sensationalized.

Rather than the Wild West, the poultry industry is heavily regulated. It faces enormous financial pressures because of this and drummed up media crusades. Perhaps a healthy dose of reality, science, and facts is in order too. Chris DR

photo credit: Is there such a thing as twin chickens? via photopin (license)