Last week, Perdue Foods announced that it has discontinued the use of antibiotics at all of its chicken hatcheries, another step in setting a standard that defines the responsible use of antibiotics in poultry production.
While the company, with farms based in Salisbury, Maryland, says it has not used antibiotics for growth promotion in its poultry since 2007, it does use an animal-only antibiotic to control an intestinal parasite, and to treat and control illness within unhealthy flocks.
“By no longer using any antibiotics in our hatcheries or any human antibiotics in feed, we’ve reached the point where 95 percent of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics, and the remainder receive them only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian,” Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, SVP of Food Safety, Quality and Live Operations for Perdue Foods, said in a statement.
The company says it has been working to address and curb its use of antibiotics for over 12 years, with its latest elimination from poultry production taking five years to fully implement. The eradication of antibiotic use in Perdue’s hatcheries has well-exceeded the standards and expectations set by the USDA Organic certification program and the Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) voluntary guidelines for antibiotic use in food animals.
“This very limited use of antibiotics is more restrictive than the new FDA Guidelines announced last December,” said Stewart-Brown. “We have yet to read any proposed legislation that we are not compliant with, and in fact, have been since 2008.”
Following consumer concern over the effect of antibiotic use in animals, in reducing its ability to effectively treat humans, Perdue Farms initiated its plan to address its practices in 2002. “We recognized that the public was concerned about the potential impact of the use of these drugs on their ability to effectively treat humans,” said Stewart-Brown. “We focused first on removing growth-promoting antibiotics.”
In 2005, Perdue had removed medically important antibiotics (such as floroquinolones, an antibiotic the FDA banned from agriculture four years later) from its feed. By 2007, has extended this eradication to all human antibiotics.
Then in 2007, Perdue Foods launched the Harvestland® brand, its no-antibiotics-ever product line. “That was a major learning experience for us,” said Stewart-Brown. “No-antibiotics-ever was a very small part of the market, but it gave the opportunity to learn what it takes to successfully run such a program. And we took those learnings and applied them across our entire company.”
In 2011, Coleman Natural Foods joined Perdue, extending the company’s no-antibiotics-ever range to cover turkey, pork and beef.
Its latest step in developing responsible antibiotic use, removing it from its hatcheries, began in 2009, and was achieved this summer. “Most hatcheries typically use small amounts of antibiotics when vaccinating the eggs,” Stewart-Brown said. “The primary purpose is to prevent infection from entering through the vaccination site. In fact, this use is even allowed by the National Organic Program — though we don’t allow it in our organic products. We invested in our hatcheries to create a clean environment and are able to successfully vaccinate eggs without antibiotics.”
Poultry within its organic and no-antibiotics-ever range are generally treated using an animal-only antibiotic to prevent common illnesses. Dr Stewart-Brown raised concern over the feasibility of completely eradicating antibiotic use from agricultural practices: “We found that it is not realistic or responsible to eliminate all antibiotics. No matter how carefully you raise animals, some are going to be exposed to infections that can only be treated with antibiotics. As veterinarians, we have a responsibility to properly treat those animals.
“But when we do treat chickens with antibiotics, we do it in a very focused and limited way that allows us to treat a single house and for the shortest duration possible, generally no longer than three days.”
Regardless of the marketing program, if any of its animals become ill, Perdue has committed to treating them as appropriate, as part of its commitment to animal welfare. If antibiotics are used, the chickens will not be marketed as part of its organic or no-antibiotics-ever range.
Stewart-Brown said he does not believe that using them when medically necessary taints their commitment to developing an antibiotic-free agricultural industry: “That philosophy does not justify the widespread use of human antibiotics in animal agriculture. We believe our less-than-five-percent use rate demonstrates a responsible use of human antibiotics, and responsible animal husbandry programs in which consumers can have confidence.”
With heightened awareness of the threat that antibiotic and other hormone use in livestock could pose to their effectiveness in treating human illness, a number of companies have led the charge in committing to antibiotic-free meat. Chipotle has long said it is careful only to purchase meat from animals raised in a humane way and free of sub-therapeutic antibiotics or added hormones and dairy products from cows which are never fed growth hormones and are raised on a vegetarian, plant-based diet; and in June, Panera Bread announced a new Food Policy centered around a commitment to clean ingredients (including requirements for livestock that mirror Chipotle’s), transparency and a positive impact (on the food system) rooted in craft.