Report Shows Farmers’ Indiscriminate Use Of Antibiotics In Chicken Feed

While the medical community and public health advocates continue to call on the FDA to better regulate the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed, farmers and pharmaceutical companies try to claim that these drugs are primarily being used for disease prevention and that their use doesn’t cross over into humans. But a new investigative report from Reuters calls into question a number of statements made by the nation’s largest poultry farmers.

Reuters was able to review data from more than 320 “feed tickets” — documents issued to chicken farmers by the mills that produce feed to poultry companies’ specifications — for six of the country’s largest chicken producers.

These tickets identify any active drug ingredients in the feed by name and list the grams per ton of each drug included in the feed. These tickets also call out the FDA-approved purpose for each drug.

According to Reuters, tickets for Arkansas-based George’s Inc, showed that chickens at one of its farms were being fed the antibiotics tylosin and virginiamycin, and that these drugs were administered solely for “increased rate of weight gain.”

Both of these drugs belong to classes of antibiotics that are considered important to human medicine, with tylosin listed as “critically important” by the FDA.

The concern with the over-use of low doses of such drugs is that it can lead to the creation of drug-resistant strains of dangerous bacteria. If those resistant pathogens cross over into the human population, the drugs will be less effective, or possibly ineffective.

Tickets for farmers raising chickens for Tyson showed that the feed included the antibiotic bacitracin, which is not considered medically important to humans, but which is still frequently used to treat skin infections in humans. It also works to promote growth in poultry, though Tyson claims that this is not why it includes the drug in its feed.

Reuters inspection of feed tickets from Chicago-based chicken supplier Koch Foods, which provides birds for KFC, showed that as recently as July the company was feeding low-dose amounts of five different types of antibiotics. Among these drugs was virginiamycin, part of a class of drugs considered “highly important” to fighting infections in humans.

Additionally, 34 of the 55 Koch feed tickets examined by Reuters listed drugs as being used “for increased rate of weight gain,” “improved feed efficiency,” or both.

This information contradicts statements that had been on the Koch Foods website until late August. According to Reuters, the site had made claims that the company does “not administer antibiotics at growth promotion doses,” and that “No antibiotics of human significance are used to treat our birds.”

Those statements were removed after Reuters contacted Koch Foods about its report. The company maintains that the growth-promotion notations on the feed tickets are only there because the government requires that they be included if growth promotion is a known effect of a drug.

Perdue recently announced that it had stopped using gentamicin, a drug in the “highly important” to humans class, at its hatcheries. The company now says that 95% of its chickens are raised without being fed any antibiotics that are also used on humans.

The Reuters report found that none of the drugs listed on the Perdue feed tickets are currently considered medically important for humans. The company does still use one antibiotic, narasin, and certain antimicrobials, but none that the FDA classifies as an antibiotic.

For all the industry’s talk about preventing disease, one Perdue farmer tells Reuters that all those drugs don’t appear to be making much of a difference.

The farmer says that in the past two years he’s raised 12 flocks for Perdue — 5 antibiotic-free flocks, and 7 flocks that were fed narasin. The mortality rates for each of the flocks was nearly identical, says the farmer.

What’s more, he says that whether or not the birds received antibiotics, all of them made the Perdue target weight of 4.25 pounds.

So if the drugs aren’t keeping birds alive, and the chickens are still making weight whether or not they’re fed a bunch of antibiotics, there doesn’t seem to be much point in continuing to risk human lives, right?

Treatment of drug-resistant infections costs anywhere from $21 billion to $34 billion a year in the United States alone, according to the World Health Organization.

And the Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than 2 million people in America become ill with drug-resistant infections every year, about 430,000 of them from food-borne bacteria.

“That’s the number we are certain of. The actual number is higher,” explains Steve Solomon, director of the CDC’s Office of Antimicrobial Resistance.

The recent outbreak of salmonella tied to chickens from mega-producer Foster Farms only highlights the risk we’re taking by pumping our farm animals full of medically unnecessary drugs.

A review of 68 of the salmonella cases linked to Foster Farms found that two-thirds of the bacteria were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and half of these pathogens were resistant to drugs in at least three different classes of antibiotics.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter from NY, the only microbiologist in Congress, and an outspoken critic of the over-use of antibiotics in farm animals, says the Reuters report is a much-needed wake-up call.

“Since 1999, I have been calling for an end to the overuse of antibiotics on the farm,” Rep. Slaughter said in a statement. “Industry has kept data showing the rampant, dangerous use of antibiotics hidden from the public for one reason: to protect corporate profits at the expense of public health. It is unconscionable but not surprising that the agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies are still calling the shots. Worse yet, federal agencies have been helpless because they are afraid of litigation. Agencies charged with protecting Americans’ health should not have to wait for the opinion of a judge before fulfilling their obligations.”

The House Energy & Commerce Committee will be holding a hearing this Friday called, “21st Century Cures: Examining Ways to Combat Antibiotic Resistance and Foster New Drug Development” where Slaughter and others will question the industry on why it continues to deny the growing mountain of evidence against the non-medical use of antibiotics.