Less than two months after McDonalds announced it would not source antibiotic-fed chickens for their restaurants, its major poultry supplier, Tyson Foods, has followed suit, with plans to remove antibiotics from its entire livestock range by 2017. Despite many attempts by legislators to cut the use of antibiotics within livestock in recent years, consumer pressure was the main driver of change for this development in McDonalds and Tysons Foods.
Why cut out antibiotics? They are used to promote growth and protect against infection among dense livestock herds. However, when factory livestock are administered antibiotics, resistant bacteria emerge, multiply and release themselves into the open environment through run-off of urine, water and faeces. When humans come into contact with these bacteria, they can develop immunity to multiple antibiotics, making it difficult to treat illness in the long-term. In the US, 23,000 die as a result of antibiotic resistance every year.
“Antimicrobial resistance is a tragedy of the commons, but with more direct individual effect than climate change,” notes Thomas Van Boeckel, an ecologist at Princeton University.
Tyson is taking suggestions from veterinarians and independent farmers about fighting infection, and considering probiotics and essential oils to treat diseased birds.
The move away from antibiotics has been echoed by Costco, who sell 80 million chickens a year.
Currently 80% of antibiotics in the US are administered to animals. Because of this, the move away from antibiotics would only work if it is taken up on a massive scale, to limit antibiotic resistance in humans. There are estimates that consumption of antibodies will increase by 2/3 by 2030, mostly within the emerging BRIC economies.
Tyson is the largest meat producer in the world, producing 40 million chickens a week. Increased demand for meat led to a 7% hike in chicken slaughter within the first month of 2015 alone. Tyson supplies the majority of US meat and make 19% of its sales through international ventures. This scale shows the potential significance of Tyson’s move. Will others follow?
The question begs, how serious is Tyson Foods about improving its impact on human health and moving towards sustainable nutrition? Is it just following the best path for their sales? If it is serious, the next steps would be to provide more space, cleaner conditions and alternative medication for livestock. Global standards and protocols for improved livestock practices still need to be established, and many questions remain unanswered. What role will pharmaceuticals play? And how can both big companies and smallholders be supported to comply?
Image credit: Cody and Maureen / Flickr
Tyson (2015, April 28) Tyler Foods to eliminate Human Antiobiotics from Broiler Chicken Flocks by 2017
CDC (2014, July 17) Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013
National Geographic – The Plate (2015, March 12) McDonald’s Chicken Goes Antibiotic-Free. Now What?
Van Boeckel T.P. et al. (2015, February 18) Global trends in antimicrobial use in food animals
The Atlantic (2015, March 23) The Antibiotics Problem in Meat
Tyson Foods (2014) Fiscal Facts 2013