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The use of antibiotics, or the non-use, is starting to take centre stage in what appears to be a marketing battle in the US poultry industry.
By the end of this year, US poultry producers will have to stop the use of antibiotics that are also used for humans to treat poultry – chickens, turkeys and other birds reared for food.
The National Chicken Council on its Chicken Check.In website says: “Chicken producers have been leaders in proactively and voluntarily taking steps toward finding alternative ways to control disease while reducing antibiotic use.
“We all have a role to play – including doctors and farmers – in preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics, both in humans and animals. Antibiotics are used sparingly in the chicken industry, and The National Chicken Council believes medically important antibiotics should only be used on the farm to treat and prevent disease – not administered to promote growth. In fact, many poultry producers are far ahead of the December 2016 deadline to end the use of antibiotics that are important to human medicine for growth promotion.”
Already several companies are using the removal of general use antibiotics as a marketing point.
For some time, Perdue Farms has been marketing No Antibiotics Ever as a trademark in mainstream retail outlets and foodservice.
Perdue said: “The transition, taking place now, will make Perdue the first major brand to convert all of its value-added chicken products to No Antibiotics Ever, providing consumers with choices in every category – fresh, refrigerated and frozen.
“The conversion to No Antibiotics Ever at retail includes all Perdue brand heat-and-eat and pre-seasoned chicken items, such as retail nuggets, strips and grilled strips. It ensures that consumers do not have to forego the confidence that comes with No Antibiotics Ever for the convenience they want, nor will they have to wait years.”
Now Cargill has joined the race in marketing products that have been reared without the use of antibiotics.
The company said that it is reducing antibiotic use in its turkey business.
On 1 August, the company ended the use of gentamicin – an antibiotic used in both human and animal healthcare – for disease prevention in turkeys in its two largest brands, Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms.
Cargill said that turkeys will continue to receive antibiotics for control and treatment of disease.
Cargill is also expanding its antibiotic-free turkey products through the creation of a new Honest Turkey product line, which will be differentiated from conventional turkey brands because they come from turkeys that are never treated with antibiotics.
Just as Cargill has said it will use antibiotics to treat sick birds, Perdue will also use antibiotics for disease treatments, but the company has said that none of these products will enter its No Antibiotics Ever range.
However, while these initiatives are being used to market antibiotic free products and are used to show the industry is reducing the general use of antibiotics, one of the major integrators has attacked “antibiotic-free” claims as irrelevant and misleading.
The company said: “At Sanderson Farms, the responsible use of antibiotics is not something that we take lightly. After deliberate and careful consideration, we do not plan to withdraw antibiotics from our programme.”
The reasons for this stance are animal welfare and because the company said that ending the use of antibiotics does not fit with the company’s programmes focused on sustainability and environmental responsibility.
“We have a moral obligation to take care of the animals in our care. While good poultry husbandry and best live management practices can reduce the need for antibiotics, there’s one thing that cannot be treated without antibiotics, and that is enteritis in the chicken,” Sanderson Farms said.
“Enteritis is a gut condition that may make chickens sick, and sometimes it is fatal. There are no treatments currently available or coming in the future to address the condition, and refusing to treat sick chickens with FDA-approved antibiotics when we know treatment would reduce the animals’ suffering is not consistent with our animal welfare obligations.”
Sanderson Farms added: “Sick chickens do not perform well. They take longer to reach market weight, and they require more resources. That includes more chicken houses, more electricity, more water, and more acres of corn and soybeans. Given the number of farm animals raised for food in the United States, even small reductions in performance could have a significant environmental impact.
“Finally, ceasing the use of antibiotics would have an effect on our company’s food safety efforts. We work very hard on a daily basis to reduce the microorganisms on our chickens that are coming to the plants. Sick birds carry heavier loads of bacteria. If we ignore bird health, the risks are much greater that we will experience higher counts of campylobacter and more salmonella in our plants, which is certainly not desirable.
“We have an obligation to the animals under our care to provide treatment when they are sick and such treatment will relieve that suffering. We have an obligation to future generations to produce our products in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way, using the fewest resources possible when producing our products.
“We have an obligation to our customers and the consumer to produce a safe, wholesome and tasty product. All three of these obligations can be better met through the responsible use of FDA-approved antibiotics when recommended by our veterinarians.”
Sanderson Farms also pointed out that no chicken that the company produces or sells contains any antibiotic residue, as the FDA require a withdrawal period before birds treated with antibiotics can leave the farm for slaughter.
“In that sense, all of our chicken is antibiotic free,” Sanderson Farms said.