Progress on antibitotics in US poultry; concern about other animals and global practices

Last week Tyson Foods, the largest US poultry producer, announced that it was working to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its US broiler chicken flock by September 2017. (Broilers are chickens raised for meat.) Tyson Foods President and CEO Donnie Smith cited global concerns over antibiotic-resistant infections and explained that the company “want[s] to do our part to responsibly reduce human antibiotics on the farm so these medicines can continue working when they're needed to treat illness."

As we’ve written before, the routine use of antibiotics to promote growth in food animals contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance, which is a major public-health problem. The announcement from Tyson Foods is an important step towards addressing this problem. Sasha Stashwick of the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests it means we’re at a tipping point:

Folks, I'm going to call it and say we've now hit the tipping point for getting the chicken industry off antibiotics.

… Tyson's commitment follows a hopeful series of similar pledges by other major food companies, including Perdue, McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Pilgrim's. A longer list, including Panera Bread, Chipotle, Whole Foods, Applegate and others have already been providing customers with meat and poultry from animals raised without antibiotics for years.

But none come close to Tyson in scale. According to WATTAgNet.com, an industry journal, Tyson Foods processes over 38 million broiler chickens per week, by far the largest US producer. Among the top 20 broiler companies (which likely control nearly all of the nation's broiler chicken production), Tyson controls 23%. Combined, the production volumes of Perdue (which announced it had already eliminated medically-important antibiotics from 95% of its birds last fall), Pilgrims (which announced this month that it will eliminate all antibiotics from 25% of its flock), and Fieldale Farms (which we gather is nearly all antibiotic-free) add up to 38% of all the chickens raised by the top 20 companies in the industry. That sure looks like a tipping point!

Tyson Foods’ announcement included a statement that it is “forming working groups with independent farmers and others in the company's beef, pork and turkey supply chains to discuss ways to reduce the use of human antibiotics on cattle, hog and turkey farms.”

Moving from forming working groups to making meaningful changes could take several years. As Bob Martin of the Center for Sustainable Living at Johns Hopkins pointed out to NPR’s Maria Godoy, broiler chickens have relatively short life cycles (reaching market weight in as little as two months) compared to hogs and cattle.

Meanwhile, newly published research from Kent State’s Tara C. Smith and colleagues reminds us that making changes to typical hog-production practices should be a priority. Smith’s team followed a cohort of 1342 rural Iowa residents, many of whom had livestock contact, to track the development of Staphylococcus aureus infections over an 18-month period. They found that swine workers were six times more likely than members of the community-based comparison group to carry multidrug-resistant S. aureus. The study is published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, and Smith has written a terrific post about it at her blog Aetiology. Elevated risk of antibiotic-resistant infection is one of many occupational hazards facing workers in the poultry industry, and I hope that companies addressing their livestock’s living conditions will demonstrate similar commitment to improving workers’ conditions.

So, the US poultry industry is taking substantial steps to reduce its use of antibiotics, and I hope to see US producers of other kinds of meat may follow suit in the coming years. What about the rest of the world, though? As Maryn McKenna notes in a post for National Geographic’s The Plate, global use of agricultural antibiotics is likely to increase as a newly affluent middle class increases the demand for meat. The push by researchers, institutions, and public-health advocates that has influenced poultry producers to reduce their antibiotic use must become stronger and reach producers across the globe. If not, we’re on track for a future in which we can no longer rely on antibiotics to heal common infections.

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