In some of the biggest news on the topic of routine antibiotic use in agriculture, Tyson Foods says today that they plan to eliminate most human-use antibiotics from their meat chicken flocks by 2017.
Tyson is the biggest chicken producer in the United States, so this announcement marks the largest commitment yet in poultry production. Taken together with the antibiotic-free purchasing commitment announced by McDonald’s earlier this year, this could be the moment that transforms chicken raising in the U.S.
Some context: Small doses of antibiotics have been part of the diet of most meat animals since it was discovered in the 1950s that the drugs caused them to put on more muscle mass, allowing them to get to market weight faster or with less feed, and also protected them against infections that arise in confined barns and feedlots. And for most of the time that antibiotics have been used that way, researchers have been pushing back, arguing that the practice contributes to the rising tide of antibiotic resistance—which kills, by a recent estimate, 700,000 people per year.
In a statement this morning, Donnie Smith, Tyson’s president and CEO, said: ““Antibiotic-resistant infections are a global health concern. We’re confident our meat and poultry products are safe, but want to do our part to responsibly reduce human antibiotics on the farm so these medicines can continue working when they’re needed to treat illness.”
In the statement, Tyson said it has already been working toward reducing antibiotic use, by cutting human-use antibiotics (more on that term in a moment), requiring veterinarians to be involved in choosing which drugs to use, and removing antibiotics from its hatcheries.
“Given the progress we’ve already made reducing antibiotics in our broilers, we believe it’s realistic to shoot for zero by the end of our 2017 fiscal year,” Smith said in the statement. “But we won’t jeopardize animal well-being just to get there. We’ll use the best available treatments to keep our chickens healthy, under veterinary supervision.”
Here’s the “human-use” complexity: Many of the antibiotics used in agriculture are functionally identical to the ones used in human medicine. That causes concern because, if the use of those antibiotics provokes the development of bacteria that are resistant, and those bacteria then cross to humans and cause infections, the drugs that would normally be used to cure them won’t work.
“Human-use” or “significant in human medicine” is shorthand for those drugs: veterinary antibiotics that are essentially the same as ones used in human medicine. (They are also the target of the long-standing Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA, introduced in Congress five times now by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., who is also a microbiologist.)
In poultry production, however, there are additional drugs that address animal health conditions but are not used in human medicine, and therefore don’t spark the same concerns about resistance. Tyson signaled today that it will continue to use one class of those drugs, called ionophores, which are used primarily to control a parasite called coccidiosis.
The company also said it will begin exploring alternatives to antibiotics; while it didn’t specify, that might mean metals (similar to the zinc used in pig production in Europe) or herb extracts (such as the oregano and thyme oils used by some small U.S. producers to keep bad bugs at bay).
By making today’s commitment, Tyson joins a trend—or maybe, gets out in front of a swiftly assembling parade. In the U.S, chicken seems to be leading meat production out of antibiotic use: In addition to McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A vowed last year to eliminate chicken raised with routine antibiotic use, and chicken producer Perdue Farms preceded Tyson by a year in committing to going antibiotic-free.
Among food service companies, Chipotle was the first to go this way, but was followed by Panera.
Among chicken-production companies, Pilgrim’s Pride recently announced that it would take 25 percent of its production antibiotic-free.
Everything’s not rosy, though: Data from the FDA has shown recently that antibiotic use in U.S. meat animals kept rising through 2012 and 2013, and a sobering analysis published earlier this year predicted enormous hikes in the developing world as economies improve enough to make meat affordable.
Even given those statistics, researchers and activists were cheered by the Tyson news. “Five years ago I would not have been optimistic this would happen,” Dr. Gail Hansen, a veterinarian at the Pew Charitable Trusts, tells The Plate. “It really changes the conversation.”
At the Natural Resources Defense Council staff blog, analyst Sasha Stanwick writes: “I’m going to call it and say we’ve now hit the tipping point for getting the chicken industry off antibiotics… Now we have to make sure the industry actually tips.”
Lance Price, one of the lead U.S. researchers on antibiotic resistance moving from animals to humans, and director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University, says: “This would be a huge win for public health… The sooner we implement sound strategies to curb all unnecessary antibiotic use in every food-animal sector, the sooner we can protect public health from the looming threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
And in a note sent to reporters, longtime activist Steve Roach of Keep Antibiotics Working asked the important next question: “While the chicken industry as a whole is making great strides in reducing antibiotic overuse, it begs the question: Why are the turkey, pork and beef industries lagging so far behind?”
It’s a good question. The average broiler chicken weighs just a few pounds and lives just a few weeks, making it a less complicated animal to raise than the larger, longer-lived ones. When antibiotic use declines in those animals too, the tide will really have turned.