Time to give another poultry giant kudos on reducing antibiotics use?

In what looks like another big step for the poultry industry, Tyson Foods—the country’s largest chicken producer—announced last week that as of October 1st, it was discontinuing use of antibiotics in its 35 hatcheries. While we don’t know all the details yet, the drug typically used in chicken hatcheries is Gentamicin, an antibiotic important for treating humans. The company cited the move as a significant first step towards the goal of reducing the use of antibiotics that are also used in human medicine.

What’s encouraging is that Tyson’s announcement isn’t an isolated blip. It comes on the heels of an announcement last month by Perdue, the third largest poultry producer in the U.S., that it is now raising 95% of its birds without antibiotics that are important to human medicine. 

As each major player in the poultry industry announces that it’s kicking the antibiotics habit that’s good news for all of us, whether we eat chicken or not. 

That’s because along with inappropriate uses of antibiotics in human medicine, antibiotics misuse and overuse in livestock is a key culprit in the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These dangerous bugs are resistant to the kinds of antibiotics we humans rely on when we get sick and that can’t easily be knocked out by them.  

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can and do travel on meat. Case in point: the recent outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg infections that the CDC linked to chicken produced by Foster Farms—the largest chicken producer on the West coast—that sickened hundreds around the country.

But meat is just one of the ways the resistant bacteria can enter our environment. Resistant bugs can hitch a ride out of feedlots on workers who come into contact with contaminated animals or meat, through water, soil, and air that comes into contact with contaminated animal waste, and through bacteria sharing resistance traits/genes with one another. Nonpathogenic bacteria can even share these traits with pathogenic bacteria.

Once they’re out, this can lead to antibiotic resistant capabilities being spread far and wide. Antibiotic resistant infections are harder for doctors to treat, can lead to longer illnesses, more hospital stays, and even death when treatments fail.

Unfortunately, the FDA just published updated numbers on total sales of antibiotics for use in livestock. As my colleague Jonathan discussed here, the livestock industry overall continues to move in the wrong direction on antibiotic use—digging all of us into a deeper hole when it comes to the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance. FDA’s main finding is that total sales of medically important antibiotics—i.e. the antibiotics needed for human medicine—increased 16% between 2009 and 2012. In 2012 alone, antibiotic use in the industry jumped nearly 8%. FDA’s numbers also show that those antibiotics deemed to be critically important or highly important for human medicine by FDA are also among those increasingly sold for livestock use.

That’s why Tyson’s self-described first step this month could be so important. When giants like Tyson decide to lead on reducing antibiotics use, they have the potential to change practices across the entire industry for the better. That’s good for Tyson’s customers and for all of us. Kudos.

We look forward to learning more about Tyson’s accomplishments to date and hope the company will both continue towards its goal and publish its actual antibiotic use data so consumers and concerned citizens can track the company’s progress.