Is a Common Kitchen Herb the Key to Healthy, Antibiotic-Free Chickens?

Oregano is taking the place of antibiotics on some poultry farms.

A touch of oregano in animal feed might help curtail antibiotic use. (Photo: Ursula Alter/GettyImages)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Why is oregano, a staple of any well-stocked kitchen, suddenly turning up on poultry farms? Turns out the potent herb is a decent stand-in for antibiotics.

In a New York Times story published on Dec. 25, Scott Sechler of the Pennsylvania chicken producer Bell & Evans says that his antibiotic-free birds peck at feed mixed with oregano oil and a touch of cinnamon.

“Mr. Sechler swears by the concoction as a way to fight off bacterial diseases that plague meat and poultry producers without resorting to antibiotics,” writes reporter Stephanie Strom. Indeed, oregano has been utilized for its antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties since the age of Hippocrates. And while the effect the herb had on grazing animals in the Mediterranean, where it grows wild, in past centuries is anyone’s guess, there is growing interest in its potential as a drug-substitute for meat and dairy animals alike.

The Times points to a 2000 study conducted by Bayer on the oregano oil product Sechler uses, which compared the ability of it and four of the company’s drugs to combat E. coli symptoms in piglets. The oregano oil outperformed the synthetic drugs in that instance, but the results haven’t been replicated in subsequent testing.

A small, Agriculture Department-funded oregano-oil trial conducted in Maine, which looked at the herb's effectiveness in controlling parasites in sheep and goats, is also briefly mentioned in the story. A report on the study, which can be found on the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association website, points out the economic advantage of what appeared to be a largely effective non-drug treatment: A five-day course of the anti-parasite drug Corid costs $1.50, while a two-month-long treatment with oregano oil only costs $3 per animal.

Sechler seems aware of how odd his Italian-scented approach to feeding chickens may appear: “I have worried a bit about how I’m going to sound talking about this,” he’s quoted as saying in the Times story, “But I really do think we’re on to something here.”

Same goes for Alexander Hristov, an associate professor of dairy nutrition at Penn State. Hristov was part of a team of dairy scientists at the university who developed an oregano-laced feed that reduced methane production in dairy cows, which can contribute to climate change even more readily than car exhaust, by 40 percent—and increased milk production too. He told Penn State Live, the university’s news website, that if "follow-up trials are successful, we will keep trying to identify the active compounds in oregano to produce purer products."

In other words, the next step would be to develop another synthetic drug, which is a bummer if you believe in all-natural animal production. But at least it wouldn’t be an antibiotic. Baby steps -- all thanks to oregano.

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