As antibiotics have become more widely used and powerful, so have the illnesses they were designed to fight. And an outbreak of an antibiotic-resistant "superbug" is a real fear of many — including consumers, legislators and meat processors.
More people using more antibiotics for more illnesses has helped give germs the impetus to strengthen. However, consumers are also exposed to the antibiotics given to the animals used in the meat they eat. Just as some doctors are now less likely to grab their prescription pad for patients with minor illnesses, many meat producers are now adopting strategies to use fewer antibiotics on their livestock.
Regardless of whether medicine or meat is more at fault in creating the "superbug" threat, meat processors are figuring out how to balance their use of antibiotics with general public opinion. While many companies have chosen to reduce or eliminate their use of antibiotics, others have chosen to promote transparency of their antibiotics use to dispel myths and better inform consumers.
Getting rid of antibiotics — or not
Most companies have opted to make changes in their supply chain to reduce or eliminate antibiotics.
“We’re doing this because it’s the most responsible approach to balance a global health concern and animal well-being,” Worth Sparkman, public relations manager at Tyson Foods, told Food Dive. “…We want to be part of the solution.”
Cargill has insisted on focusing its efforts around “science-based and fact-based solutions.”
“We want to be thoughtful about how we approach the reduction of antibiotics, as there are usually consequences for doing so,” Michael Martin, director of communications at Cargill, told Food Dive. “(They include) higher death loss, increased use of antibiotics at higher doses for therapeutic use to treat disease, increased production costs and an increased volume of resources used to raise livestock and poultry.”
What alternatives they’re using
Poultry processors in particular have employed a number of alternatives to antibiotics to treat sick animals and prevent the spread of disease.
- Essential oils: Cargill announced in January that the company had developed a proprietary blend of essential oils, called the Promote Biacid Nucleus feed additive. Sparkman said Tyson has also explored using essential oils in its efforts to replace certain antibiotics.
- Improved feed products: Cargill has developed feed products that can improve animal health without the need for antibiotic treatments.
- Industry best practices for health and hygiene
- Routine health examinations
- Veterinary advice, particularly about disease prevention
- Improved animal genetics
- Enhanced animal handling and management practices
- Proven biosecurity measures
Martin at Cargill, which has been an industry leader in researching antibiotics alternatives, admits that “no silver bullet technology to replace antibiotics has been discovered.” Cargill and other meat processors continue to work closely with a wide range of stakeholders and parts of their supply chain to find more ways to replace antibiotics while keeping the food supply safe and steady.
Livestock processors, particularly in the poultry industry, have already met significant milestones in reducing antibiotics from their supply chains. They include:
- Tyson eliminating antibiotics use from its 35 broiler hatcheries in 2014.
- Only 6.3% of chickens placed on Tyson's farms during fiscal year 2015 were treated with antibiotics.
- Cargill eliminated 20% of antibiotics used for humans from the beef cattle feed yards of the company itself and its feedlot partner Friona Industries in 2016, adding up to a total of about 1.2 million cattle per year.
- Cargill will expand the volume of turkey that has never been treated with antibiotics via its Honest Turkey brand next year.
- Perdue Farms became the first major poultry company to discontinue routine treatment with antibiotics used in human medicine for its chickens in 2014.
- This month, Perdue became the first major poultry company to eliminate routine use of all antibiotics, including animal-only varieties.
Sanderson Farms decided to take a different approach. In August, the company announced its transparency-based antibiotics initiative in a news release. Instead of cutting back on antibiotics use, the company seeks to eradicate myths about animal medicine and provide more information to consumers to aid their meat purchasing decisions.
Is one approach better than the other?
When it boils down to it, even companies that have made the most concerted efforts to eliminate antibiotics agree that there is still a time and place to use them.
“We have a moral responsibility to treat sick birds, and sometimes — in a very small percentage of our broiler chicken flocks — the most effective solution is using an antibiotic that might also be used for human health,” said Sparkman. “Our goal is to improve prevention practices and find antibiotic alternatives so we can eliminate the use of human antibiotics in our chicken flocks.”
“The health of food animals is a daily challenge for all livestock and poultry producers, largely due to factors they cannot control,” said Martin. “At times, there are significant events that challenge our production systems and biosecurity.”
Consumers and public health advocates may not always realize that antibiotics could be the only viable way to keep the food supply safe. While meat processors research and experiment with antibiotic replacements, they also need to maintain the safety of the products they introduce into the food supply. Otherwise, they could risk recalls and reputation damage.
“We maintain our commitment to food safety and animal welfare, while supporting reductions in antibiotics also used for human health,” Martin said. “We will treat animals to prevent them from suffering and we will not allow sick animals into the food supply… The responsible, judicious use of antibiotics helps protect public health, food safety and animal wellbeing.”
“While we believe healthy animals can be raised for food in an antibiotic-free environment when there is proper farm management, biosecurity and other measures, we believe antibiotics should be used when animals become ill,” Martin continued. “We will not allow animals to suffer, and we are not going to allow sick animals into the food supply. Additionally, we are listening to our customers and consumers regarding their preferences and marketplace demand, and we believe in providing them with protein product choices.”
No matter what meat processors decide to do, an antibiotics strategy is necessary for meat processors going forward.
“The health of livestock and poultry in our care, and in the care of our suppliers, are paramount if we are to continue meeting the ever-increasing global demand for protein brought about by a combination of population growth and more people moving into the middle class around the world,” said Martin. “…Healthy, productive food animals, raised using ever-improving technologies, will enable us to meet those protein needs.”