September 10, 2014

Seeking answers and armed with cautious optimism about Perdue’s recent announcement

Keeve Nachman

Keeve Nachman

Program Director, Food Production and Public Health

Center for a Livable Future

scientists-chicksPerdue, the nation’s third largest poultry integrator, announced some important changes to its antibiotic use regimen this past Wednesday. I’ve seen quite a bit of coverage of their move in the news, which is encouraging, but a critical look raises suspicions about some of their claims. Let’s take a look at the Good, the Ambiguous and the Ugly of Perdue’s new policies.

The Good

No caveats are needed when describing Perdue’s move to eliminate the injections of eggs with gentamicin. In industrial poultry production, this drug has an extensive history of use in hatcheries, even in birds that will be eventually certified as USDA Organic (the Organic regs turn a blind eye on antibiotic use prior to the second day of life). Their choice to end this practice is one that should be praised.

The Ambiguous

In its press statement, Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, Senior Vice President of Food Safety, Quality and Live Operations for Perdue Foods said the following:

“By no longer using any antibiotics in our hatcheries or any human antibiotics in feed, we’ve reached the point where 95 percent of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics, and the remainder receive them only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian.

Wow, 95 percent of chickens? That sounds pretty good! But wait – what does he mean by “human antibiotics?” This is where things get tricky. Is Dr. Stewart-Brown speaking literally, and saying that Perdue is no longer using drugs that are prescribed in human medicine? Or does he mean that Perdue is no longer using classes of drugs that are used in human medicine? While it may seem like a subtle difference, it is an important one, as drugs that are in the same classes as those approved for use in humans can still wear away at the effectiveness of the drugs we rely on to treat infections in people.

The streptogramin class of antibiotics offers an example of this. (Streptogramins are classified by the World Health Organization as “Critically Important.”) One streptogramin is Synercid, a combination of quinupristin and dalfopristin, all of which are drugs used in human clinical medicine to treat Staphyloccocus and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus infections. Another streptogramin is virginiamycin, which is used in veterinary medicine for nontherapeutic purposes, but not in human medicine. If, when Perdue says that it won’t be using “human antibiotics,” it means that it won’t be using, for example, Synercid, but will be using virginiamycin, this is a cause for concern. It’s possible that misuse of virginiamycin can create resistance to other drugs in the streptogramin class, such as quinupristin and dalfopristin, the drugs that combine to make the human drug Synercid. If this is the case, and Perdue is only prohibiting the use of individual drugs that are used to treat people (instead of prohibiting the entire class of drugs), the company may be participating in ongoing antibiotic use that would still contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria that infect humans.

Until more clarity is available about this statement, I am reserving judgment on this aspect of their new policy.

The Ugly

What isn’t affected by Perdue’s announcement is the array of public health concerns associated with industrial poultry production that are not related to the misuse of antibiotics. Even in the ideal circumstance that inappropriate antibiotic use were stricken from all of poultry production (and it isn’t clear how close Perdue’s step brings us to this), other public health concerns associated with industrial poultry production will remain unchanged, especially given the size (770 million in 2013) and concentration of chicken production on the Delmarva Peninsula. Among these problems are the enormous volumes of manure and associated risks to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, the unbalanced and predatory contracts for poultry growers, and inappropriate relationships between the industry and the Maryland governor and legislators, to name a few.

What does it mean?

So, taken in sum, there are reasons to be happy with this announcement, but I’m not ready to abandon my fear that at least part of what Perdue says it is doing is just smoke and mirrors.

I am truly encouraged by the elimination of injecting eggs with gentamicin and hope this change catches on in the rest of the industry (groups like NRDC are already calling for this). The claims about antibiotics in feed, however, are vague, and I’m not ready to break out the pom-poms and start cheering until we know a lot more about those practices. Finally, solving the antibiotic problem in poultry production won’t go very far to address the other problems rampant in industrial poultry production; this potential reduction in harm won’t change the overall impacts imposed by the industry on rural communities and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Here’s the follow-up blogpost from September 25, 2014, in which Perdue responds to Keeve’s questions.

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