More than a year after NRDC and 31 other public interest groups called on Foster Farms to eliminate routine use of antibiotics, the chicken giant announced today that it has made significant progress and set a goal (but no timeline) to completely eliminate antibiotics that are important for human medicine.
And another domino falls... The move follows a wave of announcements by major food companies and chicken producers who have vowed to stop routine use of medically important antibiotics in their flocks. In the past year alone, we have seen four major chicken companies stand up and say this can be done. In total, this accounts for approximately more than a third of all U.S. chicken production - making this a real tipping point. It's crystal clear the industry now has the tools and infrastructure it needs to raise chickens more responsibly.
So how does Foster Farms stack up with the competition when it comes to protecting antibiotic use? I'll answer that in a second.
First, recall that antibiotic resistance is an extremely worrisome problem and is getting worse as essential life-saving antibiotics are beginning to fail - with few or no replacements in the pipeline. Antibiotic resistance occurs when we use antibiotics too frequently, either in human medicine or in livestock production. Most antibiotic classes are used in both human medicine and in livestock production (we call these "medically important"). When livestock operators use these drugs, some bacteria can become resistant and spread, undermining the effectiveness of antibiotics for treating people.
So having the CEO of Foster Farms stand up in public and say that his company, which processes more than 5 million chickens a week, is getting serious about reducing antibiotics is a big deal. Here are the best parts of the company's statement:
- Ron Foster says his company is working to eliminate antibiotics that are important for human medicine. (We interpret the announcement to mean sick birds will still be treated, which is appropriate).
- Foster Farms has already eliminated gentamicin at company hatcheries. That's great news because this drug is in a class of antibiotics that are "Highly Important" for human medicine, according to FDA. (I would say this is not a drug that should be injected in broiler eggs routinely).
- Foster Farms says it has increased production of chickens raised without any antibiotics. The company says it has tripled antibiotic-free birds since last year, although it's hard to know how meaningful that is without knowing the starting number.
- The pledge includes a commitment for third party verification, but no other details are provided.
I also liked the fact that Foster Farms didn't try to challenge the scientific evidence linking antibiotic use with antibiotic resistance, like Sanderson Farms' CEO did recently before vowing to keep using drugs in his operations.
But there are definitely soft spots in Foster Farm's commitment. My biggest concern is that there is no timeline attached to the over-arching goal of eliminating medically important antibiotics. By contrast, Perdue reports that it has already eliminated these drugs in 95% of its flock; Tyson says it will meet that goal by March of 2017 (see my blog from a few weeks ago). As explained in my previous blog, ensuring veterinary oversight, a prohibition on growth promotion uses, and a ban of "critically important" antibiotics are all good measures, but still leave the door open for routine use of other antibiotics. So Foster Farm's commitment today to work at eliminating all uses of medically important antibiotics is key. We'd feel better if it came with an end-date, specific milestones to measure progress, and more transparency about current and future drug use.
But for now, good job Foster Farms! The company reports it has made real progress and seems committed to further improvement.