Tyson Foods plans to cut human antibiotics in U.S. chicken flocks by 2017

Tyson Foods Inc. (largest U.S. poultry producer) plans to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its chicken by September 2017. Tyson is an Arkansas-based chicken and meat company. One of the most aggressive timelines yet set by an American poultry company.

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Reducing Antibiotics in Meat

Tyson is also working on ways to reduce such on-farm drug practices at its other protein businesses, which include pork and beef. This is the latest push by the livestock and food industries to reduce the use of antibiotics crucial to human health in meat production.

Authorities are concerned that the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals could spur the creation of antibiotic resistant superbugs in humans, which would create a health hazard. Tyson aims to meet McDonald's deadline to have its U.S. restaurants stop buying chicken raised with human antibiotics over the next 2 years

Tyson is a key chicken supplier to McDonald's. This summer, Tyson will be working with independent farmers, company suppliers, veterinarians and others to develop ideas to cut use of antibiotics. Tyson has already stopped using all antibiotics in its 35 broiler hatcheries and has cut human antibiotics used to treat its broiler chickens by more than 80 percent since 2011

Tyson plans to completely eliminate antibiotics from chicken production by the end of 2017.

Other poultry companies are planning to do the same:

  • Pilgrim's Pride Corp. plans to cut all antibiotics from a 1/4 of its chicken production by 2019
  • Perdue Farms Inc. said more than 95 percent of the chickens it produces are raised without antibiotics approved for human use, and more than half are raised with no antibiotics of any kind
  • Chick-fil-A said its chicken would be antibiotic-free by 2019. Perdue is a major supplier to Chick-fil-A.

Tyson working with livestock drug companies to test antibiotic alternatives such as probiotics and essential oils derived from plant extracts. Despite the 2017 antibiotic-withdrawal deadline, there could be some exceptions.

Tyson said they won't jeopardize animal well-being just to meet the deadline. They’ll use the best available treatments to keep their chickens healthy, under veterinary supervision.

Why did we start putting human antibiotics in chicken? 

To offset the effects of overcrowding and poor sanitation. Growth promotion or increased feed efficiency in a herd or flock of animals to promote weight gain. Companies started doing this for the disease treatment for animals that are sick and disease control for a group of animals when some of the animals are sick. 

About 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are administered to healthy food animals. Overuse leads to antibiotic-resistance and any use of antibiotics can lead to resistance. However, when animals are given antibiotics for growth promotion or increased feed efficiency, bacteria are exposed to low doses of these drugs over a long period of time. This long-term, low-level exposure to antibiotics may lead to the survival and growth of resistant bacteria.

What benefits us when we take antibiotics out? 

  • Less risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria being passed to humans from beef, pork and turkey supply chains
  • Less risk of humans developing infections 
  • Lower health care costs related to associated infections and illnesses

When did we decide that the benefits of ingesting antibiotics no longer outweigh the costs? 

  • Experts have been saying for more than two decades that there is a connection between antibiotic use in animals and the loss of effectiveness of these drugs in human medicine.
    • 1988: Institute of Medicine had data showing farm animals medicated with antibiotics passed on salmonella to humans
    • 2010: FDA, CDC, Dept. of Agriculture testified before Congress

There is strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans. Numerous studies have demonstrated that routine use of antibiotics on the farm promotes drug-resistant superbugs in those facilities.  

Some of the most notable: 

  • Flouroquinolones (class of antibiotics including Cipro) has been used in poultry production since 1995
  • By 1999, nearly 20 percent chicken breasts sampled contained ciprofloxacin-resistant Camplobacter, a disease-causing bacteria
  • FDA eventually banned use in 2005, at which point nearly 30 percent of C. coli found in chicken breasts were ciprofloxacin resistant
  • By 2010, resistance to ciprofloxacin had declined to 13.5 percent

Tests of chicken in both 2006 and 2010 revealed more than 2/3 of chicken samples were contaminated with Salmonella and/or Campylobacter, and more than 60 percent of those bacteria were resistant to one or more antibiotics.

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Samadi's Take on Antibiotics

The use of antibiotics on the farm most definitely poses a risk to human health. Antibiotic use can promote creation of super bugs which can contaminate meat and poultry and cause hard-to-cure disease in people.

This is why the public health community and FDA have been proposing to limit use of antibiotics on livestock for more than three decades. We should drastically reduce use of antibiotics on food animals, and eliminate use altogether for growth promotion or disease prevention in healthy animals.

How can you decrease your risk of infection with resistant bacteria from foods?

  • Prevent cross-contamination from animal products by washing your hands and kitchen surfaces during meal preparation.
  • Thoroughly cook your meat, poultry, and eggs to proper temperatures. 
  • Refrigerate foods quickly because cold temperatures keep harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying.  
  • Don’t drink raw milk.
  • Wash your hands after contact with feces, animals, or animal environments.