Foster Farms, Company Behind Salmonella Outbreak, To Cut Down On Antibiotics It Shoves Down Chickens’ Throats

Foster Farms is one of the country’s largest poultry, cranking out millions of birds each week. It’s also the company behind a recent outbreak of drug-resistant salmonella that sickened more than 600 people in 29 states. Today, the company has changed its antibiotics policies so that its chickens will no longer be fed medically unnecessary drugs.

Repeated low-dose use of antibiotics can result in bigger livestock, giving farmers more beef/pork/poultry for their buck. Unfortunately, it also encourages the development of pathogens that are resistant to these drugs. This is especially bad when those drugs are medically important to human beings.

For several months in 2013, Foster Farms was putting out chickens that passed USDA inspection but nonetheless were tainted with a potent, drug-resistant strain of salmonella. In fact, at three plants, around 25% of chicken parts tested positive for the bacteria during the outbreak.

Since most antibiotics fed to livestock — which accounts for around 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. — are given either to promote tissue growth or for prophylactic disease prevention because of the foul conditions of some farms, many scientists and public health advocates have called for an end to the use of important antibiotics, except to treat a diagnosed disease.

In recent years, several big names in poultry have made commitments to curbing antibiotic use. First, Tyson announced an end to using the drugs in its hatcheries before subsequently expanding that to phase out medically important antibiotics for its entire flock by Sept. 2017. Perdue has also stopped using these drugs in its hatcheries.

Some of the biggest buyers of chicken have also made changes to their antibiotics requirements. McDonald’s says it will only source chickens raised without the drugs, while Chick fil-A is currently in a phase-out process for buying drugged-up birds. Walmart recently disappointed advocates by demanding more transparency from meat suppliers, but not requiring antibiotic-free animals for the meat sold in its stores.

In advance of a White House conference on antibiotics tomorrow, Foster Farms has announced that in the last year it has tripled the number of chickens raised without antibiotics. Granted, the company doesn’t say how many drug-free chickens it used as a base number for that calculation.

Additionally, the company says it has eliminated the use of all antibiotics deemed by the USDA to be “critical” to human health. Foster has plans to eliminate all medically important antibiotics but is not giving a timeline for when it intends to reach that goal.

Foster Farms claims that its antibiotics policies will be audited by for compliance by an independent reviewer.

The announcement is being greeted with cautious optimism by public health advocates.

Steven Roach, senior analyst at Keep Antibiotics Working says that even though Foster’s announcement is not as far-reaching as the commitments made by Perdue or Tyson, it’s a step in the right direction.

“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,” explains Roach, who says that Foster could “demonstrate even greater leadership by being the first company to take similar steps in its turkey production.”

Jonathan Kaplan at the Natural Resources Defense Council expressed some concern about the lack of a timeline for eliminating all important antibiotics from Foster’s chicken feed.

“By contrast, Perdue reports that it has already eliminated these drugs in 95% of its flock; Tyson says it will meet that goal by March of 2017,” he writes. “[E]nsuring veterinary oversight, a prohibition on growth promotion uses, and a ban of ‘critically important’ antibiotics are all good measures, but still leave the door open for routine use of other antibiotics. So Foster Farm’s commitment today to work at eliminating all uses of medically important antibiotics is key. We’d feel better if it came with an end-date, specific milestones to measure progress, and more transparency about current and future drug use.”

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