Tyson Foods, the country’s largest poultry producer, says it will stop feeding its chickens antibiotics that are used to treat humans.
The company says it plans to eliminate the drugs in its broiler chicken flocks – chickens grown for meat – by September 2017.
Farmers that raise livestock often add antibiotics to animal feed in an effort to treat disease and to prevent diseases from spreading. Adding low-levels of antibiotics to feed can also help animals grow more quickly, and packing on the pounds has made antibiotics a popular feed additive.
The problem is that the overuse of antibiotics can lead to strains of bacteria resistant to treatment, often called “super bugs,” as our Kristofor Husted reported earlier.
By adding antimicrobial drugs to livestock at a low dose, “we would select for the resistant organisms that would then pass through the environment or the food chain and into humans,” said Mike Apley, a professor of veterinary medicine at Kansas State University.
That can lead to dangerous, un-treatable illnesses in humans.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked pharmaceutical companies in 2013 to voluntarily phase out the use of antimicrobial drugs that promote growth in livestock.
Major players in livestock like Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride have cut their use of antibiotics. McDonald’s said last month that it will stop serving meat from chickens that have been treated with antibiotics that medically important to human medicine.
Critics of antibiotic use in animals say this is a big move for not only the poultry landscape, but sets a precedent for all meat producers in the U.S.
“This is really going to be the new normal for chicken,” said Sasha Stashwick, senior advocate for the National Resources Defense Council’s food and agriculture program. “And also turkey, pork and beef supply chains can start looking to make the same change.”
Indeed, Tyson says it’s working with its other meat sectors to reduce antibiotic use. Stashwick said this new standard falls in line with consumer demand for antibiotic-free meat in the U.S.
“We know that antibiotic meat and poultry production is starting from a small share of total meat production, but it’s growing really fast,” she said. “It’s growing something like 25 to 30 percent every year and that’s largely driven by consumers.”
The announcement does not mean that Tyson’s chickens will be antibiotic free, as NPR’s Dan Charles pointed out:
Tyson still will use a class of antibiotics called ionophores that are not used to treat humans. If bacteria develop resistance to ionophores, doctors don't care, because they never use ionophores anyway.
However, the announcement does signal a big change for Tyson, which controls about one-fifth of the U.S. chicken market and produces about 2 billion birds a year, according to Politico. And for the U.S. livestock industry.