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The Latest, Largest Chicken Producer to Forgo Antibiotics Could Tip the Market

The agricultural practice of giving routine small doses of antibiotics to meat animals, to increase their muscle mass quickly and protect them against infection, has been going on since the 1950s, and has been controversial for most of that time. It has persisted in the United States—though banned in Western Europe—through a combination of active political support and, until recently, a lack of scientific clarity as to its effects.

In the past decade, thanks to new molecular tools, scientific clarity has been easier to come by, and the evidence has been increasing that routine farm use of antibiotics contributes to the global rise in antibiotic resistance. Policy change has still been hard, though: The most that the federal government has managed, despite decades of struggle, is a voluntary program that asks manufacturers of veterinary antibiotics to change their drug labels.

While policy members debate, however, the market is moving ahead. At our sister blog The Plate, I discuss the latest evidence of this: The giant chicken processor Tyson Foods has announced that it will cease routine use of most antibiotics in its meat chickens, aiming to have its broiler production free of most antibiotics by 2017.

This is important news. Tyson is the biggest poultry US producer, so its influence in the market is considerable—both in terms of influencing its farmers and their families, and its customers and their customers, and also in providing a model for others to follow. (Tyson was preceded in this move by Perdue Farms, but Tyson is larger.) It is likely to have the same impact on the production side that McDonald’s announcement in March that it would forgo most antibiotics did on the food-service side. (And McDonald’s too was preceded in that decision by a competitor, the cult-sandwich makers Chick-fil-A, as well as by Chipotle and Panera.)

When will we see this decision’s effect on antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance? That is much less clear. To this point, the data on antibiotic use in the US is discouraging: Data from the FDA has shown recently that antibiotic use in U.S. meat animals kept rising through 2012 and 2013, which was the last year before the FDA’s new voluntary policy kicked in. Because the data the FDA gets from drug manufacturers isn’t granular, it is not possible to say how many of those drugs would be covered by the FDA’s new control policy, or would slide out from under. Meanwhile, a sobering analysis published earlier this year predicted enormous hikes in the developing world as economies improve enough to make meat affordable.

A separate analysis published Monday by Lance Price, PhD of George Washington University and researchers at Northern Arizona University warns that, even without ideal data, it is imperative that control efforts escalate: “Antibiotics are potent selectors of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; with increased antibiotic use, the incidence of antibiotic resistance also rises. If we delay action as we try to quantify the total human health burden of antibiotic use in food-animal production… such use will continue to increase.”

(Because this blog is still new, I’ll once again provide some pointers to past work on this topic:  Try these posts at The Platethis one here at Phenomena, and this archive of posts at my former blog, Superbug.)