Analysis: the worrying trend towards antibiotic-free chicken

By Olivia Cooper 

Many large fast food businesses in the US are moving towards sourcing antibiotic-free chicken – but is it really a viable option? 

Antibiotics are – quite rightly – in the headlines a lot these days. Unless humans do something to curb the rise of antimicrobial resistance we will find ourselves back in the dark ages with people dying from simple infections which cannot be cured. According to the recent O’Neill report, antibiotic resistance could lead to 10m deaths worldwide by 2050, up from 70,000 now.

In recent years, the focus on antibiotic use in livestock has sharpened, with a number of industry-led initiatives to cut usage across Europe and elsewhere, to try and reduce the likelihood of antimicrobial resistance passing from farm animals to humans. The Netherlands – the EU’s greatest user of antibiotics in livestock in 2008 – has since slashed its usage by more than 60%, to 176 tonnes. In the UK, poultry producers have cut their usage by 71% between 2012 and 2016 on a purely voluntary basis.

However, in the US, where a reported 80% of antibiotics used are given to farm animals, consumers are in the driving seat, bringing pressure to bear on the food industry. Alongside some Government and voluntary initiatives to reduce antibiotic use – particularly those critical to human health – a number of large fast food chains have pledged to source completely antibiotic free poultry. But with the growing popularity of these moves, where will it end? Is it really possible to have an antibiotic-free chicken industry, or are the welfare challenges being glossed over?

According to the third Chain Reaction report by the Consumers Union and Friends of the Earth, 14 of the top 25 chain restaurants in the US have taken steps to restrict the routine use of antibiotics in chicken. A quarter of all chicken produced in the US is sold through fast food restaurants, and close to half of US chicken is raised by suppliers that follow responsible antibiotic practices or have pledged to do so in the near future.  

Integrated producers like Tyson Foods and Perdue have committed to ‘no antibiotics – ever’ in their chicken, but how are they managing to do that? Both are using holistic therapies like essential oils and probiotics, with Perdue looking at slower growing breeds, more natural light and space. Perdue has even been sharing its formula for success with other producers.

According to poultry vet Richard Turner, who set up Applied Bacterial Control – a specialist firm in the UK helping farmers reduce antibiotic use – one of the main pillars of successfully reducing antibiotics is to boost the bird’s natural health and reduce the potential for disease in the first place. This can be done through tight biosecurity, clean water, and the use of natural acids to create an environment which favours beneficial microbes and discourages pathogenic bacteria.

Some 90% of any animal is made up of microbes, and creating a healthy microbiome is the key to a healthy animal, says Turner. He has adopted a protocol created by Professor Stephen Collett from the University of Georgia, USA, called seed, weed and feed. This uses probiotics, natural acids and yeast binders to seed the gut with favourable bacteria, feed them, and weed out the unfavourable microbes.

Healthier birds are more productive – but there will always be disease breakdowns. So what happens to sick birds if you can’t treat them? Allow them to suffer? Cull them? Well, no – if you read the small print on both Perdue and Tyson’s antibiotic free pledges you’ll find that they both allow for sick birds to be prescribed antibiotics should they need them. It’s just that those birds can no longer be sold under the antibiotic free banner.

So what does that mean for the wider industry? If the UK were to follow suit in the drive towards antibiotic free production, what happens to birds or flocks which do have to be treated?

“If one in six flocks has an infection that is a welfare issue if you can’t treat them,” says Turner. “And if you do treat them, you need a large number of ‘antibiotic-free’ sites to draw from. At the end of the day, somebody has to pay for all of that.”

Even the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics (ASOA) is not supportive of such a move. In a recent statement it said: “The Alliance does not endorse ‘antibiotic-free’ intensive systems where animal health and welfare may be seriously compromised in this way.”

According to Cóilín Nunan, scientific adviser to the ASOA, intensive livestock farmers have much to learn from more extensive farming systems, which often have minimal antibiotic use. But moving to more extensive, slow-grown systems will push costs up. “And the problem is that, among many retailers, price is king,” Turner adds.

In the UK, a survey by ASOA revealed that five of the eight major retailers – Co-op, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose – have banned the use of antibiotics for routine disease prevention.

The World Health Organisation has gone so far as to call for a complete ban on using antibiotics for disease prevention without diagnosis, but Gwyn Jones, chair of the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance, strongly disagrees. “We cannot endorse outright bans,” he says. “While we do not support routine preventative use of antibiotics, preventative use may occasionally be required before disease is diagnosed.”

Jones is also concerned about the misleading message that ‘antibiotic free’ labelling sends to consumers, by implying that other products, by default, contain antibiotics. In the UK, strictly regulated withdrawal periods mean that simply isn’t the case.  

“Any work to reduce, refine and replace use of antibiotics must be done without compromising health and welfare,” says Jones. “This means reassurance is needed that such a label will not lead to treatment being delayed or avoided for sick animals, or that livestock in need of nothing more than a short course of medicine to recuperate will not be destroyed rather than treated.”

Who’s acting in the US? 

  • Panera and Chipotle earned ‘A’ grades for having comprehensive policies restricting the use of antibiotics in nearly all beef, pork, turkey and chicken. 
  • Subway, Chick-fil-A, KFC, Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Wendy’s received grades of ‘B+’ to ‘C-‘.  
  • Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Jack in the Box, Burger King, and Papa John’s received a ‘D’ grade while 11 failed entirely to adopt and disclose effective antibiotics stewardship policies.

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