Today Perdue Farms--the fourth largest chicken producer in the United States--announced that more than half of their birds are now raised completely without antibiotics, setting another precedent as it leads the broiler industry away from reliance on these essential drugs. This makes Perdue the first of the top-ten major poultry companies to claim more birds to be free of antibiotics than not.
Last fall, Perdue broke ranks from an industry that has long defended the routine use of antibiotics and announced that it had eliminated antibiotics used in human medicine in about 95% of its flock. While a number of academic and government studies have long showed that antibiotic use can be avoided without economic disruption, Perdue's declaration in 2014 eliminated any shadow of a doubt that antibiotic independence is achievable in large-scale poultry production. Since then, Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride and Foster Farms have all publically issued pledges to reduce drug use.
When bacteria are routinely exposed to medically important antibiotics in a confined animal facility, they can become resistant and escape, spreading drug resistant genetic traits with other bacteria and contributing to the larger public health problem of worsening antibiotic resistance. Because poultry and livestock producers often give animals antibiotics that are in the same drug families as the drugs used by humans, antibiotic resistance on the farm can worsen antibiotic resistance in communities and hospitals.
So from the perspective of public health, the company's 2014 announcement that it had nearly eliminated human-use antibiotics is surely more significant than today's update. So far, most scientists aren't too worried about use of so-called animal-only drugs from the perspective of public health and antibiotic resistance. Reliance on both kinds of antibiotics can and should be eliminated by providing healthier living conditions for the birds (less crowding, improved sanitation, better diet, less stress, etc).
But from Perdue's perspective, it's probably not easy to get consumers excited about chicken that's still raised with use of routine "animal-only" antibiotics. What's a nearly-antibiotic-free chicken company to do? Go all the way. By eliminating the animal-only drugs too, the direction Perdue announced it's taking today, the company can put "no antibiotics ever" labels on its products, and likely get some consumer recognition for its antibiotic stewardship efforts.
That's good for Perdue, good for consumers, and will likely help grow consumer awareness and expectation for meat and poultry produced without reliance on these drugs.
My only caveat to all this good news is that we'd still like to see more transparency and third-party verification of antibiotic claims at Perdue and throughout the rest of the industry. Many Perdue products carry a "USDA Process Verified" label, meaning USDA is auditing the claims, but we understand that a significant percentage of the company's chicken products are not audited by any independent third-party. In an industry where production practices are kept secret, and cheating has occurred, we'd like to see corporate pledges to reduce antibiotics backed by third-party verification. That oversight could also give Perdue and other poultry companies a way to show they are reducing reliance on drugs by raising healthier birds in healthier living conditions, addressing growing animal welfare concerns about this industry.
Congrats to the folks at Perdue for more progress on reducing antibiotics use.