Poultry Industry Takes Step Towards Reducing Use of Antibiotics

Poultry Industry Takes Step
Towards Reducing Use of Antibiotics

February 10, 2002

Poultry Industry Quietly Cuts Back on Antibiotic Use

By MARIAN BURROS
he poultry industry has quietly begun to bow to the demands of public
health and consumer groups by greatly reducing the antibiotics that are
fed to healthy chickens.

Long a mainstay of poultry farming, antibiotics have been justified as a
means of preventing infection in chickens as well as enhancing growth.
Opponents have bitterly criticized the industry for a strategy that they
say contributes to a much larger public health problem: the growing
resistance to antibiotics of disease-causing bacteria in humans.

Now it appears that with little fanfare, the industry has begun to
acquiesce. Three companies - Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Foster Farms,
which produce a third of the chicken consumed by Americans each year -
say they have voluntarily taken most or all of the antibiotics out of
what they feed healthy chickens. In addition, the industry is turning
away from an antibiotic used to treat sick birds because it is related
to Cipro, the drug used to treat anthrax in humans. Some corporate
consumers, including McDonald's, Wendy's and Popeye's, are now refusing
to buy chicken that has been treated with it.

But despite the overall decrease in antibiotic use, there is no way for
the consumer to know whether one of these companies' chickens has been
treated with antiobiotics. This is especially true of drugs used to
treat sick chickens, like the Cipro-related antibiotic. Treating a few
sick birds requires treating the entire flock, and flocks often number
more than 30,000. The only way for consumers to be certain the chickens
they buy have not been treated with antibiotics is to purchase those
labeled antibiotic-free, or organic.

Many opponents of the prevailing agricultural practices see these
developments as a major step toward combating antibiotic resistance. But
in the absence of any monitoring by the federal government, some remain
skeptical about assertions that antibiotic use has been reduced. Because
farmers are not required to report antibiotic use in animals, the
reduction cannot be documented.

For more than 20 years, poultry producers have stoutly defended the use
of all antibiotics. The National Chicken Council, an industry trade
association, maintains that antibiotics have always been used
responsibly. "People well aware of antibiotic resistance in the industry
are skeptical that we are the root of the problems," Richard Lobb,
spokesman for the council, said.

Many public health advocates say the use of antibiotics in poultry
causes disease germs to become resistant not only to those drugs but
also to the closely related drugs used to treat human diseases. The
theory is that stronger, more drug-resistant strains of bacteria grow
when competing organisms are killed off. Strong resistance to a drug may
cause it and others in its chemical class to become ineffective for
treating some diseases.

Experts say that another significant factor in the emergence of drug-
resistant bacteria is the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine.

The turnaround on the part of three major companies is a powerful
recognition of public health officials' longstanding concerns. Foster
Farms says it uses no antibiotics at all, except to treat sick birds.
Perdue says it is using only antibiotics that are not the same as or
similar to those used in human medicine. Tyson says it has cut back on
antibiotics that are similar to those used on humans, and now uses only
two when a flock is at risk of disease.

"If they are not using millions of pounds of antibiotics in chickens,
there is that much less pressure on disease-causing organisms to develop
resistance," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, the director of the food and
environment program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a public
advocacy group. "That means the antibiotics will work at lower
concentrations."

The three companies, which sell a total of 216 million pounds of chicken
a year, have quietly made the changes over the last three to four years,
though Mr. Lobb suggested that the trend had been going on longer than
that. Dr. Mellon and other leading opponents of animal antibiotics said
they were unaware of the new farming practices.

"I was surprised but delighted that companies are making the changes
they say they are making," said Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist
with the organization Environmental Defense. "For many years the animal
industry has disregarded or even denied concerns about antibiotic
resistance, but this shows they are beginning to take them seriously."

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 26.6 millions pounds of
antibiotics are used for animals each year, with only 2 million pounds
used to treat sick animals. These figures are estimates because farmers
can buy many antibiotics without prescriptions.

For the last three years, the European Union has tightly regulated
animal antibiotics related to those used in human medicine, which are
called medically important. In Denmark, the restrictions have resulted
in a drop of about 60 percent in overall use of antibiotics from 1994 to
2000.

"Currently we are not using medically important antibiotics
nontherapeutically that would be used in human medicine like penicillin,
tetracycline and sulfonamides," said Dr. Hank Engster, vice president of
technical services for Perdue. "The primary reason is that we want to
make absolutely sure if there is any question that we are in no way,
shape or form contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans. We want
to make sure there is no overuse."

Tyson says it made the decision for economic reasons. "We looked at the
cost-benefit ratio of antibiotics and determined we could just as
effectively do it without them," said Ed Nicholson, a company spokesman.
"If we can raise birds without doing it, why do it?"

There is no evidence that a reduction in the use of antibiotics for
healthy chickens will increase the risk of getting sick from eating
them.

On the contrary, the continual use of antibotics makes bacteria more
resistant.

While some processors have been reducing such use in healthy chickens,
there has been an equally significant effort to ban a newer class of
antibiotics, called fluoroquinolones, in chickens that are sick. The
chicken drug, which is very similar to Cipro, is called Baytril. Both
are manufactured by Bayer A.G.

Even the Food and Drug Administration, which has done little in the past
to curb the use of antibiotics in animals, has been trying to ban
Baytril since October 2000. Cipro is used to treat not only anthrax but
also food-borne illnesses like campylobacteriosis and salmonellosis.

Walt Riker, a spokesman for McDonald's, said the company decided a year
ago not to serve chickens that had been treated with fluoroquinolones.
"Based on the science and some of the concerns raised and its limited
application, it was easy to discontinue the use of it," he said.

Foster Farms does not use fluoroquinolones. Tyson and Perdue still do.
Perdue and Foster Farms say fewer than 1 percent of their chickens are
treated with any antibiotics because of illnesses.

In December, Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition dedicated to reducing
the use of antibiotics in animals, wrote to 50 poultry producers,
telling them about three studies published in October in The New England
Journal of Medicine confirming the links between antibiotic overuse and
drug-resistant bacteria found in meat and poultry products. The
coalition, which includes the Union of Concerned Scientists,
Environmental Defense, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and
the Natural Resources Defense Council, asked each company to "commit to
eliminating the nontherapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in
your production practices."

After the Food and Drug Administration gave the poultry industry
permission to use fluoroquinolones to treat chickens in 1995, contrary
to advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the
increase in bacteria resistance among humans rose from almost nothing to
about 18 percent. The most recent preliminary government report
indicates a reduction in bacterial resistance to about 14 percent, which
may be attributed to a reduction in use as processors and purchasers
turn away from it.

The Food and Drug Administration says that even though there has been a
reduction, the level of resistance is unacceptable. Among those
supporting its call for a ban are the American College of Preventive
Medicine, the American Medical Association and the American Public
Health Association.

But once an animal drug has been approved, it is very difficult to take
off the market against a company's wishes. One manufacturer, Abbott
Laboratories, agreed immediately to withdraw the product. But Bayer has
not and is fighting the proposed ban.

Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, has told Bayer that if it does
not voluntarily remove Baytril from the market, he will introduce
legislation to ban its use in animals. Representative Sherrod Brown,
Democrat of Ohio, plans to introduce similar legislation in the House.

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