Perdue's HARVESTLAND brand is the number-one brand of raised-without-antibiotics chicken, and a growing brand of antibiotic-free turkey and pork and organic chicken products. Coleman Natural Foods joined Perdue Farms in 2011, and now is the leading producer and distributor of USDA certified organic chicken.
Perdue Proves Meat Production Can Prosper Without Drugs
Perdue Farms no longer uses gentamicin. In fact, according to a recent report by Mother Jones,6 the only antibiotic remaining in use at Perdue is narasin, an antibiotic not used in human medicine, and only about one-third of its chickens ever get it. (It's used to treat a parasitic intestinal condition called coccidiosis.)
Any other antibiotics are administered to sick birds only (about 4 percent of all birds). According to Mother Jones:
"Perdue ... the country's fourth-largest poultry producer, has set out to show that the meat can be profitably mass-produced without drugs. In 2014, the company eliminated gentamicin from all its hatcheries, the latest stage of a quiet effort started back in 2002 to cut the routine use of antibiotics from nearly its entire production process."
Interestingly, Perdue fared the best in a 2010 Consumer Reports test7 checking for the presence of the food-borne pathogens salmonella and campylobacter in commercial chicken meat. Fifty-six percent of Perdue's chickens were free of both pathogens.
Its main competitors, Tyson and Foster Farms, both had 80 percent of their chickens tested positive for one or both bacteria. Organic store brand chickens had no salmonella at all, but 57 percent still harbored campylobacter.
According to Consumer Reports, "This is the first time since we began testing chicken that one major brand has fared significantly better than others across the board." Even back then, Perdue's exemplary success was attributed to its more stringent policies on antibiotics.
The 50-Year Cover-Up
In the U.S., use of antibiotics in food animals rose six-fold between 1960 and 1970. It didn't take long before scientists started warning that this practice had the potential to create a public health crisis.
By the end of the 1960s, British scientists found that feeding antibiotics to animals produced resistant bacteria that could be transmitted to humans. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) taskforce came to a similar conclusion in 1972.
At that time, the FDA stipulated that drug manufacturers had to prove their products did not contribute to resistance or risk losing their drug approval. So, the drug industry set out to prove antibiotics in animal feed would not pose such problems.
As reported by Mother Jones, rather than settle the question, their efforts resulted in a 50-year long cover-up of the facts:
"[T]he Animal Health Institute, a trade group of animal-pharmaceutical manufacturers, contacted Dr. Stuart Levy, a young Tufts University researcher who specialized in antibiotic resistance.
The group wanted Levy to feed tiny, daily doses of antibiotics to chickens and see if the bacteria in their guts developed resistance ... Levy found a family farm near Boston and experimented on two flocks of chickens.
One got feed with small amounts of tetracycline. The other went drug-free. Within 48 hours, strains of E. coli that were resistant to tetracycline started to show up in the manure of the birds fed drugs. Within a week, nearly all the E. coli in those birds' manure could resist tetracycline. Within three months, the E. coli showed resistance to four additional antibiotics the birds had never been exposed to: sulfonamides, ampicillin, streptomycin, and carbenicillin. Most striking of all, researchers found that E. coli resistant to multiple antibiotics was appearing in the feces of the farmers' family members — yet not in a control group of neighbors.
The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, were so stunningly clear that Levy thought they would prompt the industry to rethink its profligate antibiotic use, or at least inspire the FDA to rein it in. But the industry rebuffed the study it had bankrolled, questioning the validity of the data ...
In 1977, the FDA proposed new rules that would have effectively banned tetracycline and penicillin from animal feed, but the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee, led by agribusiness champion Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), ordered the FDA to wait, 'pending the outcome of further research.'"
FDA Complicit in the Antibiotic Cover-Up
An internal FDA review on the safety of feed additives belonging to penicillin and tetracycline classes of antibiotics, which began in 2001 and ended in 2010, revealed that 26 of the 30 drugs under review did not meet the safety guidelines set in 1973, and none of them met current safety guidelines.
However, this information only came to light after the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the FDA to obtain the documentation. The FDA is supposed to look at three factors when determining the safety of an antibiotic-based feed additive:
- Are antibiotic-resistant bacteria being introduced into the food supply?
- Are people likely to be exposed to those bacteria?
- The consequences of what happens when people are exposed to those bacteria — would they still be able to get treated with human antibiotics?
The FDA knew this for well over a dozen years, yet did nothing to curtail the unsafe use of these drugs. The NRDC report also found that as far back as the 1970s, when many of the antibiotics now used in feed were being reviewed for FDA approval, 18 of the 30 antibiotics were already considered "high risk" for human health, but were approved for use in animal feed anyway.
Over the years, as warnings about dire human health effects mounted, farmers started using more antibiotics, not less. Between 2009 and 2014, agricultural antibiotic use in the U.S. increased by 23 percent.
Finally, in December 2013, the FDA issued its long overdue guidance on agricultural antibiotics. Alas, it only went so far as to ask drug companies to voluntarily restrict the use of antibiotics that are important in human medicine by excluding growth promotion in animals as a listed use on the drug label.
The rule goes into effect in January 2017. However, farmers can still use antibiotics for therapeutic purposes, and this loophole allows them to continue feeding their animals antibiotics for growth promotion without actually admitting it, since enforcement is lax at best.
Why Most Commercial Chicks Are Treated With Vaccines and Antibiotics Before HatchingGetting back to Perdue and poultry production, chickens are not just fed antibiotics in their feed. As mentioned earlier, most hatcheries also dose the egg with gentamicin. Why? Mother Jones explains:
"About 40 years ago, a herpes virus called Marek's disease began to attack chickens, and vets discovered that vaccinating the chicks while they were still in their shells could inoculate them for life. But when you penetrate eggs with a needle ... the tiny hole ... (allows) bacteria in.
To solve this problem, hatcheries added small amounts of gentamicin to the vaccine ... This method was so efficient that, decades later, the hatchery ended up being the trickiest place for Perdue to remove antibiotics from production. The company gets its eggs from contract breeders, and in the past eggs often arrived covered in bacteria-laden manure. Now Perdue requires its breeders to deliver clean eggs. Perdue also used to mix its Marek's vaccines in the middle of a less-than-pristine hatchery. Today the company mixes the drugs under sterile laboratory conditions and injects clean, antibiotic-free vaccines into clean eggs. It took a while, but by March 2014 the company had banished antibiotics from all 16 of its hatcheries."
How Poultry Vaccine Created a Lethal Supervirus
What Mother Jones does not delve into is the story of how this vaccine created a supervirus. As previously reported by PBS, vaccinated chickens spread Marek's disease to unvaccinated birds, and research shows the vaccine actually makes the disease spread faster than it normally would.
Compared to a sick, unvaccinated bird, a vaccinated bird sheds 10,000 times more viruses. Scientists have also found the vaccine made the virus more virulent, with exceptionally rapid lethal consequences for unvaccinated birds, which can catch the virus via contaminated dust. According to PBS:
"This is the first time that this virus-boosting phenomenon, known as the imperfect vaccine hypothesis, has been observed experimentally ... [T]he vaccine is 'leaky.' A leaky vaccine is one that keeps a microbe from doing serious harm to its host, but doesn't stop the disease from replicating and spreading to another individual ...
[T]he results ... raise the questions for some human vaccines that are leaky — such as malaria, and ... avian influenza, or bird flu ... Vaccines for HPV and whooping cough can leak too ...
'Previously, a hot strain was so nasty, it wiped itself out. Now, you keep its host alive with a vaccine, then it can transmit and spread in the world,' [co-author Andrew] Read said. 'So it's got an evolutionary future, which it didn't have before' ... The vaccination of one group of birds leads to the transmission of a virus so hot that it kills the other birds ...
Like Marek's vaccines, vaccines for avian influenza are leaky. For this reason, they're banned from agricultural use in the U.S. and Europe. When bird flu breaks out in these western chicken populations, farmers must cull their herds.
However, Southeast Asia uses these leaky vaccines, raising the possibility for virus evolution akin to what's happened with Marek's disease. 'In those situations, they're creating the conditions where super hot avian influenza could emerge, 'Read said. 'Then the issues become what does that mean when it spills over into other flocks, into wildlife or into humans. Avian flu is the setting to watch for evolutionary problems down the line.'"
Probiotics and Oregano Take the Place of Antibiotics at Perdue Farms
So what is Perdue using to keep its birds plump and healthy in lieu of antibiotics? The answer is natural remedies like probiotics and oregano. As in humans, by keeping the chickens' intestines "well-seeded" with healthy bacteria, pathogens are suppressed and immune function is boosted. Certain strains of probiotics (which Perdue guards as a trade secret) have also been shown to boost the chickens' growth rate. Moreover, as noted by Mother Jones:
"After Perdue bought an organic chicken company called Coleman Natural Foods in 2011, it adopted another unorthodox therapy: oregano. The fragrant herb ... has antimicrobial properties that, when added to feed, help the birds stave off infections. But, I ask Stewart-Brown, won't bad microbes develop resistance to oregano, too? Likely yes, he says, so Perdue only uses oregano to prevent particular infections, not as a constant additive.
Moving away from antibiotics, Stewart- Brown says, has forced him to think about the birds' overall well-being ... Perdue even turns off the lights in the chicken houses for four hours a night so the birds can rest. In the past, lights were left on 24 hours per day on the theory that chickens kept awake eat more and thus get fatter faster.
Reducing stress by letting the birds rest ... makes them healthier — and since healthy birds grow faster, the extra sleep has the same effect as constant feeding."
Another alternative warranting further investigation would be colloidal silver, which has a history of use that stretches back thousands of years. As noted in a 2013 study, which assessed silver's ability to reduce or prevent post-surgical infections, its bactericidal activity is well established. Researchers have also demonstrated that silver makes antibiotics thousands of times more effective!
Know This: Your Actions Make a Big Difference!
Why did Perdue make all of these changes when regulations don't require them to do so? Turns out Perdue listens to consumers. Starting in 2002, the company started noticing an increase in queries about its use of antibiotics. According to Perdue, "You can drown them with science to suggest they shouldn't be worried, but the worry is real."
A few years earlier, in 1998, the company began an experiment to evaluate the impact of antibiotics on growth. Three years later, the results were in, and they were not favorable for the continued use of the drugs. Nearly 7,000 chickens raised on 19 farms were included in the trial.
Half were given growth promoting antibiotics, and the other half got none. Before slaughter, each bird was weighed. The difference was minuscule. Antibiotic-free birds weighed on average a mere 0.03 to 0.04 pounds less than the antibiotic-fed chickens. That doesn't amount to much when you consider an average chicken weighs between five and six pounds.
The results proved you can eliminate the drugs without harming profitability, and armed with this knowledge, Perdue decided to address people's concerns by moving the operation away from antibiotics. Interestingly, a 2015 scientific review found that antibiotics don't promote growth the way they used to.
Before 1980, antibiotics boosted growth by about 15 percent. By 2000, that effect had dropped to 1 percent. The reason for this has been attributed to improved nutrition and hygiene, and better breeding methods. All in all, it seems clear that use of antibiotics — at least in chicken farming — has virtually NO benefits anymore over and beyond the occasional use to treat a sick animal.
Perdue's actions are a perfect example of what happens when enough people take the time to share their views and concerns with food companies. Your actions made the difference here, and it's important to recognize this fact. Even if you don't contact a company directly, each time you buy a product you vote with your pocket book, and your choices drive the food system. So be conscious of the system you choose to buy into.
Tell Sanderson Farms and KFC to Follow in Perdue's Footsteps
Remarkably, despite all the evidence pointing out just how dire the antibiotic-resistant disease situation has become, there are companies out there that still pay it no mind. Sanderson Farms is one of them. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is another16 According to its CEO, Joe Sanderson, Perdue's shift away from antibiotics is nothing more than a marketing ploy, and one he doesn't care to imitate. As noted in the featured article:
"Sanderson ... has held to the old-school party line, maintaining that 'there is no evidence that using these antibiotics for chickens leads to resistant bacteria.' Cost is the No. 1 decision maker when people go to the grocery store to buy chicken, he says, and using antibiotics remains the cheapest way to produce a lot of meat fast. 'We believe the majority of chicken sold in grocery stores will continue to be grown with antibiotics,' he says."
No, Mr. Sanderson. While cost certainly plays a role, at this point in the game it's no longer the determining factor. Literally millions of lives are at stake if we do not address the elephant in the room that is agricultural antibiotics. Paying a few pennies more per pound of chicken is a small price to pay for a clean bird, and I'm certainly not the only person who feels this way.
The fact that Perdue has been growing faster than any of its competitors is evidence of this fact. The fact that the other top poultry producers, with the exception of Sanderson, are also transitioning over to antibiotic-free is another tipoff. If you agree, I urge you to contact Sanderson and tell him antibiotic-free does matter. You can use their online Contact Page to write them an email, or better yet, call them at 1-800-844-4030, or write a letter to:
Attn: Joe Sanderson, CEO
PO Box 988
Laurel, MS 39441
KFC is another major food company that has so far failed to take the situation seriously. While many restaurant chains, including McDonald's, Subway and Taco Bell have vowed to limit or discontinue use of chicken raised with antibiotics, KFC has made no move in that direction. You can reach KFC by calling 1-800-CALL-KFC, or fill out their feedback form, available on the KFC website.