Foster Farms take steps on antibiotic stewardship, but more improvement is needed

It's been big year for antibiotic stewardship in the poultry industry. Tyson and Perdue, ranked #1 and #4 respectively in the industry by size, have declared that they have already or soon will eliminate the routine use of antibiotics that are important for human medicine [1], except for occasional uses such as treating sick birds or stop an outbreak of disease. By eliminating these drugs from their production systems, or reserving them only for exceptional circumstances, these actions will help fight the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

Meanwhile, NRDC and its allies have called upon Foster Farms, the largest chicken producer on the West Coast, to step up and demonstrate leadership in reducing antibiotics. Foster Farms was linked to an outbreak of Salmonella in 2012 and 2013 that was frequently found to be resistant to one or more antibiotics used in human medicine. The company reports that it has since taken aggressive action to address its Salmonella problem, but what about antibiotic use?

We're seeing progress, but still waiting for the big commitment to end reliance on medically important antibiotics that would align them with the policies of sales leaders Tyson and Perdue. Foster Farms updated its website in April to announce that it has eliminated the use of gentamicin in its hatcheries. That's great news because gentamicin is in a class of antibiotics that are "Highly Important" for human medicine, according to FDA. So this is not a drug that should be injected in broiler eggs every day. Foster Farms also launched a new line of chicken raised without antibiotics under the Foster Farms brand. That's also significant and positive. So does all this put Foster Farms in the industry's front ranks when it comes to antibiotic use?

Not yet. Unfortunately, Foster Farms has still not clearly committed to halting the routine use of antibiotics that are used in human medicine. Its updated antibiotic statement says: "Foster Farms never uses antibiotics that are considered critically important to human medicine or for the purpose of growth promotion." While this sounds good, we understand the term "critically important" to refer to FDA's (short) list of Critically Important antibiotics, and thus omits the majority of antibiotics classified as "Highly Important", or "Important" for human health. Foster Farms has communicated directly with NRDC recently and indicated it is pursuing a more protective policy, but the company has not yet published an unambiguous commitment to eliminate the routine use of all medically important antibiotics that are along the lines of commitments made by Tyson and Perdue.

Unambiguous commitments by leading poultry producers to eliminate/reduce medically important classes of antibiotics

TysonPerdueFoster Farms
Not used in hatcheriesCommittedCommittedCommitted
Won't be used routinely for disease prevention or growth promotionCommitted (striving to reach zero by 2017)~Committed (not used on 95% of birds)No commitment to stop routine use for disease prevention
Policy is third-party verifiedPartial/unknown [2]Partial/unknown [3]Unknown

[1] "Medically important" antibiotics are those classes of antibiotics that are used in both animal agriculture and in human medicine. Use of these drugs in animal agriculture is of particular concern because if bacteria become resistant in the livestock setting, they are more likely to threaten the effectiveness of human use antibiotics.

[2] We are not aware that Tyson has a companywide commitment to have its antibiotic stewardship policy verified by a third party, although sales for specific customers will be. Tyson announced that the chicken it provides to schools will be certified by USDA to meet antibiotic stewardship standards. McDonalds, which buys chicken from Tyson, will also use USDA to verify compliance.

[3] Some of the chicken sold by Perdue that is raised without any use of antibiotics is sold under a label that is verified by USDA. We are not aware of any third party verification for Perdue's other product lines.

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