Perdue, one of the biggest producers of chicken in the United States, issued a press release on September 3 stating that it has removed all antibiotics from its chicken hatcheries.
That’s great news.
Merits a look into poultry-raising practices, since many people eat their products.
In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a report on antibiotic resistance in livestock, acknowledging the problem as it relates to human health, and included a strategy for dealing with it: regulation of animal drugs, risk assessment, surveillance, research, and education.
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The strategy involves many different governmental agencies, which are responsible for different parts of the machine. The FDA has also published a guide to veterinarians on the appropriate use and record-keeping requirements in the use of antibiotics in poultry. It specifically advises against the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics and says to “use narrow spectrum antibiotics whenever appropriate”:
“Antibiotics considered important in treating refractory infections in human or veterinary medicine should be used in animals only after careful review and reasonable justification. Consider using other antibiotics for initial therapy. Poultry veterinarians and producers should recognize the importance of antibiotic resistance in both human and veterinary medicine. Important antibiotics used in both poultry and humans are to be held in reserve to minimize the rate of resistance development to these important compounds.”
It further states that no antibiotics are approved for use in animal feed. It’s important to note that these are recommendations, not requirements.
Enter Poultry Producers
Drugs are routinely mixed into poultry food to enhance growth; this occurs due to interactions with intestinal microbiotics. While this widespread practice was prohibited by law in the United States and European Union in the early 2000s, there is a loophole that allows antibiotics in feed if it’s indicated.
In 2011 alone, thirty million pounds of antibiotics were sold to the livestock industry in the U.S. Earlier this year, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FDA doesn’t have to ban the use of antibiotics, in spite of growing concern to human health. Only one judge opposed the ruling, stating in his dissent:
“Today’s decision allows the FDA to openly declare that a particular animal drug is unsafe, but then refuse to withdraw approval of that drug. It also gives the agency discretion to effectively ignore a public petition asking it to withdraw approval from an unsafe drug. I do not believe the statutory scheme can be read to permit those results.”
So the FDA says they shouldn’t but allows that they can. Further, the advocacy group Food & Water Watch reviewed the FDA’s list of drugs banned for use as growth enhancers and found that eighty-nine percent of them can still be used for any other reason, at the discretion of the producer/veterinarian. This practice, of course, isn’t limited to poultry but extends to other livestock grown for food.
The FDA is fully aware of the dangers of this and widespread use of other antibacterials, such as are found in common items like soap. Other countries have banned these chemicals and the FDA may admit the danger, but such products are still for sale on grocery store shelves.
The Risk to Humans of Antibiotic Use in Poultry
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognize the terrible danger of overuse of antibiotics. In a 2013 report, it states:
“Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013 is a snapshot of the complex problem of antibiotic resistance today and the potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction. The overriding purpose of this report is to increase awareness of the threat that antibiotic resistance poses and to encourage immediate action to address the threat…CDC estimates that in the United States, more than two million people are sickened every year with antibiotic-resistant infections, with at least 23,000 dying as a result…Antibiotic resistance is a worldwide problem. New forms of antibiotic resistance can cross international boundaries and spread between continents with ease. Many forms of existence spread with remarkable speed. World health leaders have described antibiotic-resistant microorganisms as ‘nightmare bacteria’ that ‘pose a catastrophic threat’ to people in every country in the world.”
When the medicine used to fight infection stops working, people die.
Perdue prides itself as a market leader and hopes others will follow suit. They have made it corporate policy to stop using any antibiotics in its hatcheries, resulting in ninety-five percent of its poultry never receiving human antibiotics. (Notice the adjective “human”; that doesn’t mean they can’t use veterinary antibiotics.)
What We Can Do to Prevent Antibiotic Resistance
Bacteria are living things. As with any living thing, they will feed on what they like, die if they ingest something toxic, and starve if they can’t find anything suitable to eat. If they are in your body, knowing what you can eat and do to get rid of bacteria that make you sick is crucial, especially if there will be no more drugs that can do it for you. You can find a list of foods with antibiotic properties here.