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Organic Consumers Association

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Cook Organic not the Planet Campaign

Playing Chicken With Antibiotic Resistance

Murray Opsteen has 18,000 chickens at his feet. He's standing very still, so as not to crush them with his size-12 boots. Although the chickens densely carpet the floor around him - so densely they have little room to move - they aren't making much noise. In fact, the primary sound in Opsteen's vast barn, known in the poultry industry as a raising shed, comes from half a dozen powerful electric fans pushing the shed's fetid air. Still, the air reeks, because the chickens are being raised atop their own excrement, a practice that hugely reduces cleaning costs. "They're birds," says Opsteen, a broad-backed giant who doesn't mince his words after 18 years in the poultry business. "And this is the way birds live."

Here's how the process works: A nearby egg hatchery sends chicks to Opsteen's raising shed just a few days after birth. They're given another 40 days to mature and fatten in the raising shed, and then they're trucked away to a slaughterhouse operated by a grocery chain. After they leave, Opsteen scrapes six weeks' worth of excrement off the shed's concrete floor. Then the next huge flock of chicks arrives.

To help the birds cope with infections - the shed is forever teeming with the many types of bacteria and parasites that thrive in chicken excrement - drugs are mixed into the birds' supplies of food and water. Opsteen's not sure exactly what type of drugs they get; he relies on his feed supplier to get the mix right. But on one specific drug issue, Osteen is extremely clear: Although eggs are routinely injected with antibiotics at many North American poultry hatcheries, this was not done with the chickens on Opsteen's farm, located in Ontario, Canada. 

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