As we’ve written before, the routine use of antibiotics in livestock operations contributes to the global problem of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. So I was delighted to visit Maryn McKenna’s Superbug blog and read that Perdue Farms, the US’s third-largest chicken producer, has announced that it has stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion or disease prevention, and is no longer using antibiotics important for human medicine in 95% of its birds. (McKenna is always my favorite source for all things antibiotic-related; check out her antibiotics archive to learn more about this and related issues.)
According to Perdue, this dramatic reduction in antibiotic use has taken 12 years and careful planning about alternative strategies. McKenna reports:
To compensate for the lost effect of the antibiotics the company relinquished, [Perdue Senior Vice President of Food Safety, Quality and Live Operations Bruce] Stewart-Brown said they also improved chickens’ diets by removing animal byproducts and going to an all-vegetable feed of soybean meal and corn oil; using prebiotics and probiotics including “oregano and yucca” and “yogurt type things”; increasing the number of vaccinations chickens receive; and doubling down on cleaning chicken “houses,” the long sheds that can hold tens of thousands of broilers at a time.
This is a good reminder that the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) model is dysfunctional in many ways. Unhealthy diets and poultry houses that don’t get cleaned often enough to avoid waste buildup may lead to cheaper chicken prices, but they also help create conditions in which disease can flourish. Antibiotics are often both a means of speeding animals’ growth and a natural response to disease-prone (or disease-ridden) flocks. As my George Washington University colleague Lance Price said in a recent TEDx talk, “The most diabolical villain could not design a better system for creating superbugs than the modern CAFO.”
I hope that Perdue’s announcement will inspire other poultry producers to follow suit. And I hope the company’s commitment to figuring out how to change their procedures for the good of public health extends to assuring that poultry-processing workers are able to do their jobs without developing carpal tunnel syndrome or other disorders for which poultry workers are at high risk. (For more on this topic, see our Poultry Plants category.)