Feature: The search for antibiotic-free production

Genetics company Joice & Hill outlines the steps being taken to minimise the use of antibiotics in animal protein production. This article was first published in the Innovation supplement to Poultry Business in May 2021

For over 70 years, agri-businesses have been using antimicrobials, in the feed and water of animals, to support growth, improve survival rates while at the same time creating a safer supply of food. However repeated overuse and misuse of antibiotics can cause bacteria to evolve over time and become resistant. The process of antimicrobial resistance is speeding up, making the treatments of infections much harder. At the same time, the focus on reducing antibiotics has to be balanced against our duty to treat animals in need.

Although most of the antibiotic resistance humans are facing is related to antibiotic usage in human medicine, it is recognised that usage in the food chain is a factor. 

In order to keep animals and people healthy, the animal protein sector including layer breeding companies such as Hendrix Genetics concentrate resources on sustainable animal breeding. They select animals that are more resistant to diseases and can quickly recover from challenges on their own. Effective biosecurity systems are put in place to prevent the need for antibiotics in the first place. As a result, the use of antibiotics in laying hens is amongst the lowest among all farmed animals. 

Is total antibiotic free protein production a possibility?

It is widely accepted that the use of antibiotics in animal production should be minimised. However, it becomes a complex ethical question, if we will allow an animal to die, when it could be cured with antibiotics. For the time being, animal breeding companies can contribute as much possible to prevent antibiotics usage, but if an animal is suffering from a bacterial disease, it should be treated with antibiotics when necessary. A total ban of any antibiotic treatment could amount to cruelty.

Hendrix Genetics, whose breeds are distributed in the UK by Joice & Hill, started a sustainability programme in 2013. During the first five years of the programme, the responsible use of antibiotics was one of the main mandatory stakes all Hendrix Genetics business units worked on, along with improving biosecurity, animal welfare and health and security of personnel.

Novel technologies

Effectively implementing antibiotic free animal production requires the entire world to collaborate. When more people commit to implementing good practices to minimise the need of using antibiotics, synergies and collaborations become possible.

New technologies for example also help battle diseases and help reduce the need for antibiotics. Novel technologies are being developed and tested, making it possible to detect early warning signs and management interventions to be implemented sooner. For example, when laying hens fall ill, they usually show signs of stress upfront. They behave differently, make more or less noise, heat up or cool down, speed up or slow down their pace. With new technologies it is possible to detect changes earlier and farmers can address a problem faster.

Laying hens unlock natural defences to ward off disease

A new genetic link to the immune system in laying hens has been discovered that could result in laying hens being born resistant to many diseases. 

Pioneering research of the full genome of over 1600 layers has revealed a genetic link to natural antibodies (NAbs). This research that was undertaken by Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Hendrix Genetics. It has huge potential to impact productivity, biosecurity, and sustainability.

Unlike traditional antibodies that the body creates to fight infections, after exposure to germs (viral/bacterial), NAbs are present naturally, without exposure. This means that if the body is exposed to germs, it can react faster and eliminate the threat much quicker. Most importantly for animal breeding, it was discovered that these NAbs are heritable and therefore are impacted by genetics.

The timing of this discovery is crucial as NAbs may play a vital role in the evolution of the protein value chain. The layer industry, in particular, is undergoing tremendous change. The two biggest factors being the transition from individual cages to more open group housing, and the other being the curtailing or elimination of preventative antibiotics.

Natural antibodies seem like a perfect solution to the current challenges facing the layer industry. Not only does it help improve productivity in settings with more disease pressures, but it does so without the use of antibiotics.













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