This month, Maryland's own Perdue Farms announced that their chicken supply is now 100 percent antibiotic free — a win for public health in Maryland and the entire country. Perdue is the first major American poultry supplier to stop using routine, low dose antibiotics in their agricultural operation. If Perdue, which processes approximately 13 million chickens each week, can make this change, why can't everyone?
The routine use of low dose antibiotics to raise animals facilitates the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can travel off of farms and into the community through human to animal contact, contaminated food and through environmental factors like water run-off, dirt and airborne dust. The spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria is very much a public health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), at least 2 million Americans get sick from antibiotic resistant infections each year, and 23,000 die as a direct result. Increased hospital stays and lost work days all contribute to the $55 billion to $70 billion annual cost of these antibiotic-resistant infections nationwide.
If we lose antibiotics, our health systems will dramatically change. A minor infection or injury could kill. Losing antibiotics would cripple the effectiveness of some of our most important tools in medicine, seriously undermining our ability to manage infections in patients undergoing chemotherapy, dialysis, organ transplants, c-sections and other surgeries. Some estimates suggest that by 2050, drug resistant infections could kill more people worldwide per year than cancer does today.
In the U.S., approximately 70 percent of antibiotics considered important to human medicine are sold for use on livestock and poultry. These drugs are often fed to animals that aren't sick to prevent disease that can be caused by cramped or unsanitary living conditions. Through the use of animal husbandry techniques, vaccines and probiotics, Perdue has moved away from low dose antibiotic use and only uses antibiotics to treat sick animals.
Perdue's action on antibiotics is not only the right thing to do for public health, it has also proven to be a smart business decision. In a Wall Street Journal article announcing the news, Perdue Chairman Jim Perdue estimates that sales of chicken raised without antibiotics are growing by 15 to 20 percent, while sales of conventional chicken are growing by only 1 to 3 percent. And as Panera Chief Executive Ronald Shaich explained, after the supplier invested in different ways to raise and treat chickens, the "cost differential was de minimis."
Perdue is one of the early movers and shakers on the antibiotics issue, coming out ahead of other producers like Tyson Foods, which has also recently committed to phase out medically important antibiotics. In recent years, food chains like Panera, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Subway and McDonald's have all made commitments to stop serving meat raised with routine antibiotics.
The market is shifting, but not at the pace necessary to address this public health crisis. While significant evidence indicates that adopting a responsible antibiotics policy is good business and will help protect antibiotics for future generations, there are still some who resist change. For example, fast food chain KFC has remained stoically opposed to amending their antibiotics policy, and Sanderson Farms, another U.S. chicken producer, has even come out to say they are proud of their routine antibiotic use. The pharmaceutical industry is investing heavily in alternative vaccines and probiotics, while pumping dollars into lobbying efforts in state capitals and D.C. to stop proposed regulations.
It is time for states and the federal government to push for the rest of the poultry and livestock industry to follow Perdue's lead.
The Food and Drug Administration has adopted guidelines calling for the "judicious use" of medically important antibiotics in agriculture. Unfortunately, these policies amount to nothing more than voluntary half-measures that have thus far failed to reduce antibiotics use in agriculture.
In 2015 California, a state with an enormous animal agricultural industry, became the first to prohibit routine low dose use of antibiotics. The Maryland state legislature has considered a similar measure, but members have not yet succeeded in passing a law. They are expected to consider doing so again in the 2017 legislative session.
We can protect our life saving antibiotics, but we have to push past the opposition of the industry groups and act now. If Perdue can do it, why can't we all?
Emily Scarr is the director of Maryland PIRG; Twitter: @EmilyScarr, @MarylandPIRG.