Four of the country's major chicken producers say they have drastically reduced the amount of antibiotics they use in their birds, and they're providing data to prove it. Host Steve Curwood speaks to Karen Florini of the advocacy group Environmental Defense about the struggle to get antibiotics out of U.S. factory farming practices.
CURWOOD: Back in the 1950’s, farmers found that by adding small doses of antibiotics to chicken feed, the birds would grow faster and plumper. And with the rise of factory farms, the antibiotics help prevent disease.
But science now shows that the widespread use of these drugs in animal feed can make them far less effective for humans, as germs develop resistance. Four of the country’s top poultry producers recently announced that they will no longer use antibiotics unless birds are ill or directly threatened with illness.
Under pressure from major buyers, including McDonalds, the chicken business had already started reducing the use of drugs with Tyson Foods, the largest producer, recently cutting antibiotic use by more than 90 percent
Joining me is Karen Florini. She’s a senior attorney with the advocacy group Environmental Defense. Welcome to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: So Karen, Tyson, which is the country’s largest producer of chickens, says that less than one percent of their birds now contain antibiotics. But the company has been scaling back for a few years, so what’s the news here?
FLORINI: This is the first time there are actually numbers coming out saying how much of the specific antibiotics that particular companies are using. It is important to note that these are self-reported, unverified data, so it’s not entirely clear how various companies are using certain terms. There remains a real need for consistent and verifiable data to be publicly reported so that we all understand just what the numbers mean. But it is very good news, because the numbers that they are reporting – the reductions, the 93 percent reduction – is a very big number showing some real progress in reducing antibiotic use in chicken production.
CURWOOD: Why are folks worried about antibiotics in their poultry and other meats?
FLORINI: Well, antibiotic resistance is a huge problem in human medicine. Resistant infections already kill tens of thousands of people annually, and the problem’s getting a lot worse. The problem of antibiotic resistance comes from overuse of antibiotics both in human medicine and in animal agriculture. And it’s clear that vast quantities of antibiotics are used in animal agriculture.
CURWOOD: Why are U.S. chicken companies making this move now? To what extent is this tied to marketing – concern about sales and consumer resistance or acceptance?
FLORINI: There’s been more and more attention being paid to the vast quantities of antibiotics that are getting used in agriculture, and more and more public pressure coming to the chicken and other meat producers saying this is not something we want. Organizations such as the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, many, many others are on record as saying it’s not smart to be using antibiotics this way.
Public concern about the practice is then increasing and the companies are hearing that and starting to make movements away. Tyson deserves a lot of credit for scaling way back on its antibiotic use, as does Perdue and Goldkist and Foster Farms. We’d like to know what the practices in the other chicken companies are so that it’s clear to what extent there is still a lot of antibiotic use going on there.
CURWOOD: What do groups like yours, Environmental Defense, and other advocates on this issue recommend be done?
FLORINI: FDA needs to take action, and because it’s very difficult for them to act on any kind of reasonable timeframe, Congress needs to enact legislation that says unless FDA determines these uses are safe, and can continue to be used safely consistent with modern scientific understanding, then those uses need to end. Just like with pesticide re-registration.
CURWOOD: Karen Florini is a senior attorney with Environmental Defense. Thank you so much.
FLORINI: My pleasure.
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