Another Major Poultry Company Is Getting Rid of Antibiotics

Foster Farms is the latest to stop using medically important drugs in its chickens.

(Image: YouTube)

Jun 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Foster Farms has had its fair share of bad press in recent years. The California-based poultry company was at the center of a salmonella outbreak in 2013, and despite 621 people getting sick from eating its products, it waited nearly 18 months to issue a recall.

Since then, however, Foster Farms has made significant progress on one public health–related front: antibiotics. First, the company stopped using antibiotics in its hatcheries, and on Monday it took that approach company-wide, announcing a plan to phase out all antibiotics used in human medicine for its birds.

It’s also launching two new product lines, one that’s organic (and thereby antibiotic-free) and another that’s fully antibiotic-free (sick birds that aren’t destined for this line will still be treated with drugs that aren’t used in human medicine).

“Our company is committed to responsible growing practices that help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for human health and medicine,” Ron Foster, CEO and president of Foster Farms, said in a statement. “We take a holistic approach to antibiotic stewardship. Our goal has been three-fold: reduce the need for medical treatment by advancing bird health; choose animal-only antibiotics when needed for conventional flocks; and increase antibiotic-free production.”

In 2014, Foster Farms was ranked as the number 10 poultry producer in the country by Watt Poultry USA, a trade publication. While the company, which is privately held, does not release production figures, Watt reports that it processes 20 million pounds of meat every week.

The move puts Foster Farms, which is a major supplier on the West Coast, in line with other leading poultry producers. Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Perdue all say they are working to eliminate medically important antibiotics from their birds, and major chicken buyers including McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A are asking suppliers to provide them with antibiotic-free meat.

So, Why Should You Care? Numerous problems are associated with industrial-scale poultry farming—from animal rights abuses to hefty environmental impacts. But the one that you can’t opt out of by simply not eating meat is antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 23,000 people die from such infections, which may otherwise be easily treated with antibiotics, every year, with a full 2 million becoming sick annually. It stands to reason that they aren’t all meat eaters.

Unlike other poultry companies, Foster Farms did not announce a deadline for phasing out medically important antibiotics from its production. Between its new antibiotic-free and organic lines, Foster Farms will produce 40 million pounds of drug-free birds annually—but that’s equal to only two weeks’ worth of its overall production. The company promises a third-party, independent auditor will help keep it on track, but whether that will be through the USDA’s process-verified program or a private company has yet to be announced.

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While public health organizations are celebrating the news, they are focused on the twin gray areas of the timeline and the auditing plan. “We urge Foster Farms to make this move transparently by ensuring that its future use of antibiotics in flocks be publicly reported, both in terms of the reasons for use and the amounts, and by releasing the results of its third party audits,” Steve Roach, senior analyst with Keep Antibiotics Working, said in a statement.