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Antibiotics for poultry are bad, right? That seems to be the consensus, based on retail packaging that touts the products’ antibiotic-free status, announcements by chicken suppliers that they will stop using antibiotics in their operations, press releases by restaurant chains promising a lack of antibiotics in their chicken dishes, and demands from consumers for “clean” chicken and egg options. But Sanderson Farms, the nation’s third largest supplier of chicken, contests the very premise and therefore is making its continued insistence on using antibiotics part of its marketing campaign, to set itself apart from its competitors.

lo-res_105207437-sThe concern about the use of antibiotics focuses specifically on those medications that also are approved for use in humans. The theory suggests that if these antibiotics are used too widely in poultry production, the bacteria they are intended to kill will develop into drug-resistant strains, with resulting threats to human and animal health and welfare. The threat to consumers is not the antibiotics themselves; federal regulations require that any products being sold for consumption must be free of antibiotics. Thus, every package of chicken in the grocers’ case is antibiotic free. But in the process of raising the chickens, many producers dose the animals with antibiotics, often in vitro, to reduce the occurrence of disease.

With these clarifications, Sanderson Farms argues that its use of antibiotics is safe and appropriate. It halts the medication well before the animals are prepared for sale. Furthermore, the company argues that there is insufficient scientific evidence to support the link between the use of antibiotics by chicken farms and the increase of drug-resistant bacteria among human populations. Instead, it asserts that companies that promote their antibiotic-free chicken are simply trying to charge more for their products.

Sanderson Farms promises a different approach in its marketing, asserting that by using antibiotics, it can keep its production leaner and more efficient. For example, were it to forgo the use of antibiotics, it says it would need to leave more space between the cages in which the chickens are kept, which would require building more barns to house them. Such moves would increase costs. It also claims that eliminating antibiotics increases the mortality rates for the animals, such that it is neither environmentally sustainable nor efficient as a production option.

Competitors such as Tyson and Perdue, which are moving toward the complete elimination of human-approved antibiotics from their production lines, instead point to evidence that shows no increase in mortality among chickens left untreated. They also cite reports by the Centers for Disease Control that offer initial evidence of a link between antibiotic use in chickens and the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, even if the link has not been proven conclusively.

Some buyers, such as McDonald’s and Chick-Fil-A, already have committed to doing away with antibiotic-treated chickens in their menus. But for individual consumers, Sanderson Farms believes it has a compelling argument and appeal to make. If Sanderson Farms can explain its perspective on what antibiotic use really means, it thinks customers will be happy to pay less for chicken that is still safe to eat.

Discussion Question:

  1. As a consumer, do you prefer to purchase chicken raised without any antibiotics, at a higher price, or chicken treated with antibiotics, for a lower price? Why?

Source: Stephanie Strom, “Poultry Producer Sanderson Farms Stands Its Ground: It’s Proud to Use Antibiotics,” The New York Times, August 1, 2016

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