By Abhijit Ghosh
In a time of national division, Americans remain unified on their love for chicken. As the No. 1 source of protein consumed by Americans, chicken commanded $90 billion in 2016 consumer spending.
The use of antibiotics in feed and agricultural water began in the 1950s. While pharmaceuticals and chicken farmers have harvested financial windfalls and cost savings respectively, consumers are facing an emerging public health crisis. Behind the curtain of murky marketing, uncooked chicken may have elements of bacterial resistance rising from the industry’s unchecked antibiotic usage. By changing their spending habits and demanding state legislation, consumers are reshaping industry practice.
In 1950, American Cyanamid, a pharmaceutical, stumbled on to a finding where the use of Aureomycin, an antibiotic, played a key role in fattening chicken. Word spread across the industry and the use of antibiotics to spike livestock feed and agricultural water mushroomed. While farmers have been able to fatten birds quickly, pharmaceuticals have been fattening their wallets. According to Consumers Reports, 80 percent of antibiotics sold today are used for meat and poultry production. Of the 27 million pounds of antibiotics sold in 2014, livestock operations used 20 million.
Public health crisis
The purpose of antibiotics is clear: to kill potentially harmful bacteria. Repeated use and overuse trigger bacteria to mutate in order to gain resistance to the effects of any particular antibiotic. With their large enclosed spaces, chicken farms provide the perfect nidus for antibiotic resistance. Under the FDA’s blind eye, those bacteria-infested chicken then follow supply chain to grocery stores and kitchen counters. According to the CDC, 23,000 people die from microbes resistant to antibiotics. The Institute of Medicine concluded in a 1988 report that “a link can be demonstrated between the use of antibiotics in food animals, the development of resistant microorganisms in those animals, and the zoonotic spread of pathogens to humans.”
The FDA’s mission is to protect the public’s health and keep the food system secure. Under the FDA’s Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (21 U.S.C. Sects. 301-399f), the FDA must approve a new animal drug before it goes to market. Following the 1950 finding and rapid application, the poultry industry quickly obtained FDA approval. To this day, the approval stands. Due to aggressive lobbying of pharmaceutical and chicken farmers, Congress has been successful in creating only voluntary requirements to curtail antibiotic usage for growth purposes, while maintaining an exception for medicinal usage in chicken farms.
Nonprofit advocacy organizations including the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) attempted to push the FDA into action by going into litigation focused on 21 U.S.C. § 360b(e)(1). Prior to issuing the voluntary guidelines, the FDA called for hearings regarding the public health crisis but never held the hearings. NRDC argued that the cited rule above compelled the FDA to actually hold the hearings. On appeal, the Second Circuit sided with the FDA’s decision not to withdraw the approval.
In 2014, tests from Consumer Reports revealed that 97 percent of chicken breasts available for sale at grocery stores nationwide contained bacteria that are potentially harmful for human consumption. Such jarring statistics compelled consumers to demand changes at the state level. Of the eight states that had proposed legislation to curtail antibiotics usage in chicken farms only California passed a law, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2018.
Perdue has begun to change its business practice. Perdue showed that it was feasible to maintain production while completely phasing out antibiotics. Motivated by stagnant sales, fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Chick-Fil-A, and Subway issued statements that they will stop serving chicken processed with antibiotics.
With the movement towards healthier eating, Americans’ love for chicken will only grow. Today, however, consumers don’t want just any chicken, they want antibiotic-free chicken. Consumers are driving the demand for antibiotic free chicken. Fast food companies are listening and encouraging chicken farms to do the same. There is a false assumption that chicken grown without antibiotics would be cost prohibitive. As evidenced by its increasing market share, Perdue has taken the lead showing it is indeed possible to meet consumer demands without using antibiotics. The question is will other chicken farmers follow suit?