Tyson Decides To Feed Slightly Fewer Drugs To Its Chickens

Tyson may have decided to stop feeding antibiotics to birds at hatcheries, but it's still using the drugs for "disease prevention" at chicken farms.

Tyson may have decided to stop feeding antibiotics to birds at hatcheries, but it’s still using the drugs for “disease prevention” at chicken farms.

When it comes to reducing the enormous amount of antibiotics being fed to animals solely for growth-promotion, just about any news is good news. So we welcome today’s announcement from Tyson that it will cease using antibiotics in its hatcheries, but still have concerns about the drugs being fed to birds once they leave the hatchery.

The chicken giant said today that it has “successfully developed and tested new protocols that will enable us to discontinue the use of antibiotics in our hatcheries.”

According to the company, one of the main reasons for making this change is that the antibiotic Tyson typically used in hatcheries is important to human health.

The over-use of antibiotics leads to the development of drug-resistant pathogens, so using a drug that is important to human health just to fatten up chickens ends up putting human lives at risk.

Our lingering concern is in Tyson’s statement about antibiotic use in chickens after they leave the hatcheries.

“[W]e sometimes use FDA-approved antibiotics in the feed, but only when prescribed by a veterinarian to treat or prevent disease,” reads the statement.

Once again, we come up against the “disease prevention” excuse. This is what the drug and livestock industries have turned to in response to the FDA’s 2013 guidance that asked drug companies to voluntarily stop selling antibiotics solely for growth promotion in animals. The companies agreed, but since most of the growth-promotion drugs are still FDA-approved for disease prevention, farmers have just switched the reason for using the drug from one column to the other.

“The vast majority of the antibiotics used to raise our chickens are never used in humans,” continues the statement.

The phrasing there sets off our B.S. radar.

First, a recent investigation found that at least some Tyson chickens were being fed bacitracin, an antibiotic that while not deemed medically important to humans is actually used on humans to treat skin infections.

Second, it says the antibiotics are “never used in humans.” It’s hard to tell if they are differentiating between specific drugs and the more general categories to which those drugs belong. If Tyson means that most of its drugs belong to categories of drugs that aren’t used on humans, that’s one thing. If the company means “This very specific drug that we feed our chickens is not prescribed by humans,” that leaves the door open to the possibility that the drug could still belong to a class of drugs deemed medically important to you and me.

Steven Roach, Senior Analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working, one of many groups seeking to curb the use of antibiotics in animals, he supports Tyson’s decision to stop using antibiotics in hatcheries as, “hatchery use of antibiotics has been very clearly linked to resistance in both chickens and sick people.”

However, he shares our concerns about the company’s continued use of antibiotics for chickens on the farm.

“Tyson’s position on using human class drugs for disease prevention is something we oppose and seems to be a step backward for Tyson,” says Roach. “So kudos on the hatchery change, but they could do more on antibiotics in their chicken feed.”

Perdue recently announced a similar end to antibiotics in hatcheries, but the company does still provide some antibiotics to chickens once they leave the hatchery.

Both Perdue and Tyson sell birds that have never been fed antibiotics.

One farmer who has raised both standard and drug-free chickens for Perdue recently said he’s seen no difference in mortality rates or final weight between the two methods, which makes us wonder if chicken farmers aren’t throwing away money while encouraging the development of drug-resistant bacteria.

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