Big players in the food industry (Tyson Foods, Perdue, Chick-fil-A, McDonald's, Costco, Wendy's and Subway) have all made announcements, with varying levels of detail, on their plans to produce and/or source chicken raised with limited or no antibiotics. This is all welcome news, but the problem of antibiotic overuse in food-animal production still remains. To begin with, many of these companies have not given a timeframe for implementation and many have not said if their claims will be independently verified. And even if these companies follow through on their promises, there's still much to be done to protect public health.
Take the chicken industry first.
Nearly 9 billion chickens are produced in the U.S. each year. While Tyson Foods and Perdue are giants in the industry, they produce less than one-third of the U.S.'s total broiler production. Koch, Pilgrim's Pride and Sanderson Farms round out the top 5 broiler chicken producers. While Koch and Pilgrim's Pride have remained silent on the issue, Sanderson Farms said that it would not seek any reductions in antibiotic use. Their CEO went on to question the science connecting antibiotic use in food-animals with antibiotic resistance in people.
Statements like these are misinformed at best and irresponsible at worst as studies dating back to the 1960s have repeatedly shown how antibiotic use in food-animal production breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Furthermore, leading medical and public health organizations in the U.S. and internationally acknowledge that antibiotic use in food animals contributes to the crisis of antibiotic resistance in people.
Little to no movement in the beef, pork and turkey sectors.
Almost every announcement made so far has centered on reducing antibiotic use in chickens. But what about the 30 million cattle produced each year? What about the 107 million hogs? And the 237 million turkeys? That's a whopping 373 million food animals raised each year -- many of which are given antibiotics daily for much of their lives.
To be fair, reducing antibiotic use in these sectors will be harder than for the chicken industry. Most chickens only live about 45 days and spend their entire lives in one place. Turkeys live longer and in-breeding coupled with feeding programs to maximize growth rate has made them susceptible to various infections. Cattle are typically moved from place to place over the course of their lives and often acquire infections while being transported and then grouped with cattle from many different ranches. In addition, most cattle live their final months standing in feces on feedlots where their diets change drastically from grass to corn, which increases their risk for foot rot and liver abscesses. Pigs often live in filthy, overcrowded conditions and are at risk for infection as they move from one stage of production to the next.
Yet for too long antibiotics have been used to mask these problems and prop-up a broken system. Farmers, veterinarians and public health researchers must work together to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use in all animal sectors. We have to raise animals in a way that promotes their health and where antibiotics are used to treat disease rather than used to compensate for inadequate husbandry.
So, what's a consumer to do?
So far, the changes that we have seen in the chicken industry have been largely driven by consumer demand. That's why it is more important than ever that we harness our collective power and tell companies that we expect reduced antibiotic use in all meat and poultry products, not just chicken. In addition, we need to require progress reports from any company announcing policies limiting antibiotic use and insist that all claims be validated by a legitimate third-party auditor, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Just as important, we need to call for even more change in the marketplace and vote with our wallets by purchasing only from companies that are transparent regarding antibiotic use. And if the change doesn't happen fast enough, we must continue to urge policymakers to step in with new rules that would hold the food industry accountable, and ultimately protect public health by reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics in food animal production. We must act quickly as time is running out for preserving the efficacy of life-saving antibiotics.