Antibiotic-Free Chicken Is Now a Big Deal for Big Poultry

Pilgrim's Pride, the No. 2 chicken producer in the country, will raise 25 percent of its birds without drugs by 2019.

Pilgrim’s Pride headquarters near Pittsburg, Texas. (Photo: Ian Broyles/Flickr)

Apr 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The top poultry producers in the country are all working to reduce, if not completely eliminate, the use of antibiotics in their operations. On Monday, Pilgrim’s Pride joined Tyson, the industry leader, and Perdue in the growing effort. Pilgrim’s, the second-largest U.S. chicken producer, said that 25 percent of its birds would be raised without antibiotics by the end of 2018. The company may not be going completely antibiotic-free, but it’s implementing the reduction more quickly than its competitors.

It’s the latest in a string of announcements from retailers and producers alike that suggest antibiotic-free chicken could just be the way we do chicken in the United States.

Panera, which has 1,800 locations in the United States and Canada, was considered the largest buyer of antibiotic-free meat in the country in 2014, purchasing 28 million pounds annually. The chain may have been ahead of the rest of the industry, but it’s about to lose its mantle—and that’s a good thing. Perdue, the third-largest poultry producer in the country, slaughters 12.4 million broilers weekly. According to the company’s estimates, 95 percent of its birds are raised without antibiotics. At four pounds of meat per bird, that’s nearly 50 million pounds of antibiotic-free chicken being produced in just seven days.

With Pilgrim’s Pride moving to limit its use of antibiotics and Tyson Foods reducing its use of antibiotics by 84 percent since 2011, Panera’s 28 million pounds of drug-free meat suddenly looks like a drop in the bucket. McDonald’s, the second-largest restaurant buyer of poultry in the country, is working toward an antibiotic-free McNugget supply too.

Like farmers switching back to GMO-free corn and soy or fast-food restaurants investing in grass-fed beef, the increase in antibiotic-free poultry is another instance of consumer demand and activism tipping a small market segment into a significant—and lucrative—business concern. Sales of antibiotic-free chicken were up 34 percent in 2013, and according to a study from Consumer Reports, people are willing to pay more—as much as a buck more a pound.

“We’re seeing quite a big growth in antibiotic-free product,” Wesley Batista, CEO of JBS S.A., which owns a majority stake in Pilgrim’s Pride, told The Wall Street Journal. “As consumers and as the population is looking more for that, the industry needs to follow.”

So yes, antibiotic-free chicken is fast becoming the status quo in big poultry. But unlike, say, Pilgrim’s Pride saying that 25 percent of its birds would be pasture-raised come 2019—which would raise serious concerns about defining terms and the selling-out of small-scale producers—antibiotic-free meat needs to go big to have a positive effect on public health.

Despite decades of concern over the industry’s standard practice of feeding chickens and other livestock regular low doses of antibiotics to promote growth, the agriculture industry continues to buy more drugs that are used in human medicine. According to the most recent numbers release by the FDA, sales of medically important drugs increased 20 percent between 2009 and 2013. Although agricultural uses aren’t the sole reason why antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become prevalent enough to bring about “the end of the antibiotic era,” it’s part of the problem.

If just 5 percent of meat is raised without the drugs, the problem—which kills 23,000 people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—is going to get worse, not better. But with the top three chicken producers in the country moving away from the practice, that number is going to rise.