Giants in the poultry industry are moving away from the use of antibiotics in a big way. Perdue stopped using antibiotics last year and now Tyson, the largest chicken processor in the U.S., has pushed up its plans to stop using the drugs by June.
“As of June, all chickens raised for the retail Tyson brand will be grown without using any antibiotics—ever,” Worth Sparkman, a Tyson representative told Modern Farmer. “This makes us the world’s largest producer of no-antibiotics-ever (NAE) chicken.” Back in 2015, the company announced the move away from antibiotics used in human medicine in all chickens grown for meat for Tyson Foods (some antibiotics not used in human medicine may occasionally be employed) with an end date of this September. The latest announcement concerns its retail brand that will feature chicken that has never received antibiotics of any kind.
The change to antibiotic-free is only in the company’s U.S. products and doesn’t include chicken produced by the their international operations in China or India. Sparkman says while Tyson is committed to reducing antibiotic use and are “actively exploring” ways to that goal, “disease conditions” in other counties “require the use of some antibiotics to maintain the health and welfare” of their flocks. There’s currently no timeline for going antibiotic-free internationally. The same holds true for the company’s beef, pork, and turkey products. Unlike their chicken operations, Tyson don’t typically own the cattle and hogs and instead buys them from independent farmers and ranchers, according to Sparkman. The company has been discussing ways to reduce antibiotic use in these production chains, he says.
The moves by Tyson and Perdue comes amid the growing fear of the rise of so called “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics due, say scientists, to their overuse in humans and animals. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than two million people in the U.S. are infected with drug-resistant bacteria each year, and that about 23,000 die as a result. In September, the United Nation’s General Assembly met to come up with a plan to address the issue.
The move away from antibiotic use is also likely driven by changes in guidelines from the FDA that went into effect Jan. 1. The new rules restrict the use of antibiotics—specifically the kind used in human medicine—for growth promotion in animals. (For years farmers have routinely fed antibiotics to their animals after it was discovered the drugs helped livestock grow faster and bigger.) The new FDA rules also expanded the list of feed-grade antibiotics that are classified under Veterinary Feed Directive drugs. Basically, this means that antibiotics in animal feed that had been available over the counter now require a veterinarian to sign off on their use, making it more difficult for producers to access them.
Consumer demand is also a driver, with companies like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts committing to purchasing antibiotic-free chicken in part due to public pressure.
Tyson (as is Perdue) is using things like botanicals and essential oils—oregano, thyme, yucca and peppers, for instance—and probiotics—the same kind of good bacteria found in yogurt—to help keep their birds healthy, says Sparkman. If needed, sick birds are treated with antibiotics under veterinary care, according to the company.
Still, critics of the large poultry companies say we need to be wary of the hype. Former contract farmer for Perdue (and whistleblower) Craig Watts told the Food Integrity Campaign in a 2015 interview that consumers shouldn’t equate antibiotic-free chickens with those being raised “100 percent naturally” since the chicks still receive various medications and (at least in the case of Perdue, he asserted at the time) “antimicrobials in their feed and water.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the 2015 announcement by Tyson Foods in connection with the company’s newest move to no antibiotics ever for its retail brand.