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How Antibiotics Created the Chicken Industry — and Turned It Into a Source of Lethal Infections

Maryn McKenna is an investigative journalist and senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University who has written a number of health-related books. Her latest, “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats,” exposes many aspects of the chicken industry that most people are completely unaware of.

The book grew out of an interest in antibiotic resistance, which she began investigating about 10 years ago. As noted by McKenna, antibiotic resistance is a vastly underestimated health threat. 

An estimated 23,000 Americans die each year from drug-resistant infections, and even though health officials are growing increasingly concerned that drug-resistant STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) are rising at alarming rates, the issue remains largely ignored. Globally, the death toll attributed to drug-resistant infections is thought to be around 700,000 annually, and it’s only getting worse.

Agriculture plays a major role in this; in the U.S., four times as many antibiotics are used in livestock as are used in human medicine. On the one hand, scientists warn we need to preserve and protect antibiotics lest they end up losing their effectiveness, and on the other, the food industry is feeding them to animals, most of which are not sick. “That contradiction is what set me on the journey that ended up in this book,” McKenna says.

How It All Began 

Historically, chickens were rather scrawny little birds that no one thought to consume as a primary meal on a regular basis. Today, Americans consume an average of 91 pounds of chicken each year. “Chickens are growing fastest in consumption around the world because they’re very easy to raise,” McKenna notes. They don't require a lot of land, for example, and can eat scraps.  

“If we go back to the time of our grandparents and great grandparents, almost everyone raised chickens … But the reason they were there wasn't primarily to be a meat source. It was to be a source for eggs, because eggs were very inexpensive, very easy to produce protein. For the most part, we ate chicken after a hen's egg-laying days were done. 

If you imagine a hen that's been running around for a couple of years chasing chicks around the barnyard, flapping up into a tree to avoid the family dog, scratching for insects … that bird is going to be scrawny and muscular. Not very delicious. 

Probably with a very rich flavor from all of that muscular development, but not tender and juicy the way our chickens are now. The only [exception] would have been … baby roosters … [which are] fed for a couple of months and then sold. They were called spring chickens and were considered uniquely delicious … 

Then, out of a really interesting confluence of accidents, chicken moves forward as a meat source — first, because it turns out that chickens are so easy to raise that farmers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia … convert from being farmers of vegetables to farmers of chickens … Their market for these meat chickens is New York City, which … [had] the largest concentration of Jewish population in the world.

Jews who want to observe the Sabbath and want to have a lovely, exotic, luxurious meal for the Sabbath can't eat pork, obviously … You could go into a live market and watch the chicken get killed in front of you, and know that it was religiously appropriate. So, chicken became the meat of New York City.” 

How Antibiotics Created the Modern Chicken Industry

But these facts alone did not create the chicken industry we have today. Antibiotics played a crucial role in this development. It used to be that most animals raised for food in the U.S. were fed antibiotics on a daily basis — not because they were sick, but rather because small doses of antibiotics (too small to actually cure an infection) caused the animal to put on weight faster. 

Now, McKenna says this practice has been banned since January 2017 for the purpose of weight gain, but the use of antibiotics as a “preventive” measure (for potential illness) is still legal — and therefore still largely unregulated.

Since more meat per animal means more profit, the practice is driven primarily by economics. Subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics were also shown to protect animals from diseases frequently spread in crowded barns and feedlots. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was successfully used in the battlefields of World War II in 1943. 

In 1944, the drug became available for the general public, and became an instant success. But another interesting thing also happened at the end of World War II. The food system grew fragile, partly because of destruction caused during the war. There was also a strong push to save money. One way producers did that was by giving their animals cheaper feed. Alas, cheaper feed meant less nutrition and more disease, so farmers began to search for ways to compensate. 

“A specialist in the dietary needs of chicken — who happens to be working for one of those companies that's making one of the first antibiotics — goes in a search for supplements. One of the supplements he tries uses the dried manufacturing leftovers from his company's drug, Aureomycin. It's the first of the tetracycline class of drugs. 

To his amazement, the baby chicks that get the dried Aureomycin leftovers grow more than twice as fast and put on twice as much weight as any of the other chicks in his experiment. From that, the worldwide industry of giving antibiotics to animals is born. Within five years, American farmers are giving their livestock 500,000 pounds of antibiotics a year. Now, it's over 30 million pounds [per year].”

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