In response to what public health experts say is a growing crisis of potentially lethal antibiotic-resistant bacteria, poultry giant Perdue has announced that it has stopped using antibiotics in its chicken hatcheries and is limiting applications throughout its business.
“By no longer using any antibiotics in our hatcheries or any human antibiotics in feed, we’ve reached the point where 95 percent of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics, and the remainder receive them only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian,” said Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of food safety, quality, and live operations at Perdue, the nation’s third-largest chicken producer.
It sounds impressive, and in a number of ways, it is. Just five years ago, every single chicken raised by Perdue received human antibiotics in some form. The company cited consumer concerns about rampant use of antibiotics in factory farms as well as its own growing awareness of the problem of antibiotic resistance as its motivation for overhauling its practices.
“We recognized that the public was concerned about the potential impact of the use of these drugs on their ability to effectively treat humans,” said Stewart-Brown. “We focused first on removing growth-promoting antibiotics.”
Indeed, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States today are used in the livestock industry, and much of that is mixed with feed and given to animals daily—both to prevent the spread of disease in often crowded and unsanitary conditions and to promote growth. (Why antibiotics cause animals to bulk up isn’t fully understood, but it’s a practice the industry latched on to decades ago.)
Such indiscriminate use, however, has been linked to the alarming rise in antibiotic-resistant infections in people. Since no new class of antibiotics has been developed in more than 30 years, it seems we may have stalled out in the evolutionary-pharmacological arms race that has produced a dangerous class of superbugs.
In a report last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention charted what it called “the potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction” on the issue of antibiotic resistance, noting that 2 million Americans every year are sickened by antibiotic-resistant infections, with at least 23,000 dying from them. For its part, the World Health Organization warned in its own report released this year that “the problem is so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine. A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—is a very real possibility for the 21st century.” (The CDC says we’ve already arrived at that threshold.)
In light of the sheer scope of the problem, Perdue’s actions, while laudable, may appear to be a drop in the bucket—a sentiment perhaps echoed in the somewhat tepid response from public health advocates.
“The amount of antibiotics used on the farm is simply not sustainable if we want to preserve their uses in human medicine,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I hope Perdue’s actions foreshadow changes across the industry and embolden regulators to prohibit the misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.”
Indeed, Americans may have no choice but to rely on the goodwill and voluntary efforts of the livestock industry to tackle the problem. Despite having sounded the alarm about the dangers of widespread antibiotic use on farms back in the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration has failed to take strong action on the issue. CSPI, along with several other public health and environmental groups, tried to force the agency’s hand by taking it to court several years ago. The groups won a pair of initial cases, but last month a federal appeals court overturned both rulings, saying the agency had no congressional mandate to regulate antibiotic use on farms.
That decision was “deeply disappointing,” said Robert S. Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, “because it allows voluntary guidelines to take the place of decisive action in confronting one of the most important public health problems of our time.”
Those voluntary guidelines, which the FDA released last December, were called “a major new policy” and “the agency’s first serious attempt” to address the antibiotic free-for-all on factory farms in the media—but they left public health advocates fuming.
As Sarah Borron, a researcher with the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, pointed out last March, the FDA’s guidelines contain an enormous loophole: While they prohibit the use of medically important antibiotics to promote livestock growth, they do nothing to curb their prophylactic use. That is, farmers can still routinely ply healthy animals with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick—and if they happen to grow faster, so be it.
Food & Water Watch analyzed the FDA’s list of more than 400 antibiotics affected by the new guidelines and found that 89 percent of the drugs being barred as growth enhancers can still be given to otherwise healthy animals for other reasons, no questions asked.
So when Perdue crows that its “very limited use of antibiotics is more restrictive than the new FDA Guidelines announced last December,” well, like your average factory-farmed boneless chicken breast, you gotta take that with a grain of salt.