With Tyson pledge, antibiotic stewardship is looking like the new normal in the chicken industry

UPDATE 4/28/15: Tyson responded to our question today and clarified that under their new commitment, they will phase out use of all drugs in antibiotics classes used in human medicine, except to treat sick flocks. This is great news. If implemented, this policy will be a truly meaningful step in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

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Tyson Foods, the nation's largest processor of meat and poultry, announced today that it will eliminate the use human antibiotics for raising chickens in its US operations by September 2017, while also developing an action plan for turkey, beef and pork, as well its chicken produced abroad. By our math, Tyson's pledge means that more one-third of the entire US chicken industry has now eliminated or pledged to eliminate routine use of medically-important antibiotics. Folks, I'm going to call it and say we've now hit the tipping point for getting the chicken industry off antibiotics.

Tyson's announcement comes at a time when scientists are sounding the alarm over rising rates of antibiotic resistance. Here's the problem: Livestock operators around the country--and the world--rely on antibiotics to make animals grow faster or help them survive crowded, unsanitary, stressful living conditions that are typical of large-scale industrial livestock and poultry operations. When antibiotics are used day after day, some bacteria become resistant, multiply, and can spread to our communities. When these antibiotics are the same as those used in human medicine, bacteria that become resistant on the farm can threaten the efficacy of the drugs we rely on when we get sick (of course overuse of these drugs by humans is also a major cause of the problem).

Tyson's commitment follows a hopeful series of similar pledges by other major food companies, including Perdue, McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Pilgrim's. A longer list, including Panera Bread, Chipotle, Whole Foods, Applegate and others have already been providing customers with meat and poultry from animals raised without antibiotics for years.

But none come close to Tyson in scale. According to WATTAgNet.com, an industry journal, Tyson Foods processes over 38 million broiler chickens per week, by far the largest US producer. Among the top 20 broiler companies (which likely control nearly all of the nation's broiler chicken production), Tyson controls 23%. Combined, the production volumes of Perdue (which announced it had already eliminated medically-important antibiotics from 95% of its birds last fall), Pilgrims (which announced this month that it will eliminate all antibiotics from 25% of its flock), and Fieldale Farms (which we gather is nearly all antibiotic-free) add up to 38% of all the chickens raised by the top 20 companies in the industry. That sure looks like a tipping point!

Now we have to make sure the industry actually tips.

Tyson also promised today to be fully transparent about its future antibiotic use in its chicken production, reporting annually on its progress towards the 2017 goal--a significant precedent in a secretive industry. We hope this will include a technical but important clarification about how the company is defining "human antibiotics". (Specifically, whether the company is eliminating all antibiotics that belong to classes of drugs important to human medicine or exclusively human antibiotics, a subset of that former category. This matters because resistance that develops to one antibiotic in a medically-important class of drugs, even if it's not used in human medicine, may also spur development of cross resistance to other antibiotics in that same class, which are).

Transparency and accountability will be essential to ensuring that Tyson and other companies follow through and deliver on antibiotic stewardship promises. Tyson stumbled with antibiotic stewardship in 2007 after marketing a product as being raised without antibiotics when in fact antibiotics were used in chicken eggs pre-hatch. That product line was pulled. To eliminate any shadow of a doubt, we urge Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrims and others to contract with third-party verifiers to verify antibiotic stewardship policies and report on progress in meeting antibiotic use reduction goals.

With the top three chicken companies taking decisive action to reduce antibiotics use, the rest of the broiler industry needs to step up to the plate. The scientific evidence justifying the urgent need to ratchet down livestock use of antibiotics has been settled for years. Now there's no question about the economic viability of phasing out these drugs. It's time for the chicken industry to make real antibiotic stewardship an industry-wide standard--and for producers of turkey, beef and pork to catch up.

About the Authors

Sasha Stashwick

Senior Advocate, Energy & Transportation and Food & Agriculture programs

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