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Top US Chicken Producer Will Stop Antibiotic Use

Small, regular doses of antibiotics help animals grow faster and prevent illness in confined flocks and herds, but bacteria living in and on the animals eventually become immune to the antibiotics.

The largest chicken producer in the United States said Tuesday that it planned to stop giving its birds the same antibiotics doctors use to treat sick patients.

Tyson Foods said it aimed to stop using human antibiotics in its flocks by 2017.

The move came in response to the statements of health experts and consumer advocates that the practice is contributing to the growing number of antibiotic-resistant infections.

For decades, farmers have fed livestock small, regular doses of antibiotics. The drugs help the animals grow faster, and they prevent illness in confined flocks and herds.

But bacteria living in and on the animals eventually become immune to the antibiotics. And resistant bacteria can find their way into people, making infections harder, more expensive or even impossible to treat.

The meat industry has long downplayed the contribution it may be making to the problem. But in a statement announcing the company’s decision, Tyson President and CEO Donnie Smith took ownership of the issue.

“We want to do our part to responsibly reduce human antibiotics on the farm so these medicines can continue working when they’re needed to treat illness,” he said.

Moves by rival companies

Tyson is the latest chicken producer to announce it will scale back antibiotic use. The second-largest producer, Pilgrim’s Pride, said it would aim to make a quarter of its flock antibiotic-free by 2019. Perdue, the No. 3 company, said 95 percent of its birds never receive antibiotics.

“This is a tipping point for the industry,” said Sasha Stashwick, a food policy analyst with the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “When we do the math, we’re seeing that over a third of the industry at this point either has eliminated the use of medically important antibiotics in its production or has made a public commitment to do so within the next few years.”

Tyson said it planned to reduce antibiotic use in its global chicken operations but has not set a timeframe. The company does business in some 130 countries.

It also said it intended to consider reducing antibiotic use in its cattle, hogs and turkeys.

While antibiotic use in livestock is losing favor in the U.S. and Europe, it is expected to grow in the developing world. As demand for meat increases and production practices intensify, farmers worldwide will use two-thirds more antibiotics by 2030 than they did in 2010, according to recent research.

But the announcement from Tyson “sends a very strong signal that it is possible to produce chicken at large scale without using antibiotics that are medically important in humans,” said study co-author Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Washington-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy.

Speedier production

Laxminarayan said in countries that are fairly new to large-scale production, antibiotics can help farmers bring their chickens to market about 15 percent faster.

“That’s not trivial,” he added. “It certainly can be a make-or-break situation for many producers.”

But cleaner living conditions and better nutrition can practically wipe out that advantage, he said.

Producers are unlikely to make changes without the pressure from consumers that drove changes in the U.S., Laxminarayan noted.

Just a few years ago, U.S. consumers “were not aware of the scale at which antibiotics were being used in their meat,” he said. “And today, consumers really know this, and they’re able to mentally connect the link with that use to resistant pathogens that keep their loved ones in hospitals for longer.”

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.