The poultry industry has quietly begun to bow to the demands of public health and consumer groups by greatly reducing the antibiotics that are fed to healthy chickens.
Long a mainstay of poultry farming, antibiotics have been justified as a means of preventing infection in chickens as well as enhancing growth. Opponents have bitterly criticized the industry for a strategy that they say contributes to a much larger public health problem: the growing resistance to antibiotics of disease-causing bacteria in humans.
Now it appears that, with little fanfare, the industry has begun to acquiesce. Three companies - Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Foster Farms, which produce a third of the chicken consumed by Americans each year - say they have voluntarily taken most or all of the antibiotics out of what they feed healthy chickens. In addition, the industry is turning away from an antibiotic used to treat sick birds because it is related to Cipro, the drug used to treat anthrax in humans. Some corporate consumers, including McDonald's, Wendy's and Popeye's, won't buy chicken that has been treated with it.
Despite the overall decrease in antibiotic use, there is no way for the consumer to know whether one of these companies' chickens has been treated with antibiotics. This is especially true of drugs used to treat sick chickens. Treating a few sick birds requires treating the entire flock, and flocks often number more than 30,000. The only way consumers can be certain the chickens have not been treated with antibiotics is to buy those labeled antibiotic-free, or organic.
Many opponents of the prevailing agricultural practices see these developments as a major step toward combating antibiotic resistance. But in the absence of any monitoring by the federal government, some remain skeptical about assertions that antibiotic use has been reduced. Because farmers are not required to report antibiotic use in animals, the reduction cannot be documented.
For more than 20 years, poultry producers have stoutly defended the use of antibiotics. The National Chicken Council, an industry trade association, maintains that antibiotics have always been used responsibly. "People well aware of antibiotic resistance in the industry are skeptical that we are the root of the problems," said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the council.
Many public health advocates say the use of antibiotics in poultry causes disease germs to become resistant not only to those drugs but also to the closely related drugs used to treat human diseases. Strong resistance to a drug may cause it and others in its chemical class to become useless for some conditions.
The turnaround on the part of three companies is a powerful recognition of public health officials' longstanding concerns. Foster Farms says it uses no antibiotics, except to treat sick birds. Perdue says it is using only antibiotics that are not the same as or similar to those used in human medicine. Tyson says it has cut back on antibiotics that are similar to those used on humans, and now uses only two when a flock is at risk of disease.
"If they are not using millions of pounds of antibiotics in chickens, there is that much less pressure on disease-causing organisms to develop resistance," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, the director of the food and environment program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a public advocacy group. "That means the antibiotics will work at lower concentrations."
The three companies, which sell a total of 216 million pounds of chicken a year, have quietly made the changes over the past three to four years, though Lobb suggested that the trend had been going on longer than that. Mellon and other leading opponents of animal antibiotics said they were unaware of the new farming practices.
"I was surprised but delighted that companies are making the changes they say they are making," said Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist with the organization Environmental Defense. "For many years the animal industry has disregarded or even denied concerns about antibiotic resistance, but this shows they are beginning to take them seriously."
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 26.6 million pounds of antibiotics are used for animals each year, with only 2 million pounds used to treat sick animals. These figures are estimates because farmers can buy many antibiotics without prescriptions.
For the past three years, the European Union has tightly regulated animal antibiotics related to those used in human medicine.