What Happened to Antibiotic-Free Chicken? | Civil Eats

What Happened to Antibiotic-Free Chicken?

With the biggest poultry company in the country backtracking and other commitments to raising healthier birds unmet, the future is rockier than it once seemed.

hickens gather around a feeder at a farm on August 9, 2014 in Osage, Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Seven years ago, Tyson—one of the largest chicken producers in the world—made headlines with its commitment to “eliminate antibiotics in chicken.” Then, last summer, the company changed its policy: Instead of “no antibiotics ever” (referred to as NAE in the industry), Tyson’s farmers would go back to using antibiotics. They would refrain only from using drugs considered “important in human medicine.”

Given the company produces about a quarter of the chicken in the country, ripple effects ensued. At the Los Angeles United School District, school nutrition directors were left scrambling to find another supplier in order to honor a long-standing public commitment to get antibiotics out of student meals. Then, in March, Chick-Fil-A—which has used Tyson as a supplier in the past—also backpedaled on a 2014 commitment to serving antibiotic-free chicken, citing supply concerns.

Now, despite all the prior momentum, none of the four largest chicken producers are exclusively practicing “no antibiotics ever” production.

As the impacts came into focus, advocates and experts who had been pointing to the chicken industry as a model for how food corporations could make real progress toward improving practices that threaten public health looked on in dismay.

“When we first started working on this in 2015 and we were targeting McDonald’s, Chick-Fil-A was one of the players that we could point to as already doing the right thing,” said Andre Delattre, SVP and COO of programs at Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). “From that perspective, it’s especially a shame that they’re backsliding.”

Between 2014 and 2018, the percentage of chickens raised without antibiotics rose from 3 percent to 52 percent, and the amount raised without medically important antibiotics soared to more than 90 percent. The Natural Resources Defense Council called it “a stunning success story,” and allied organizations like PIRG shifted their focus to reducing antibiotic use in pork and beef, where medically important drugs are still used routinely in feed and water, at much larger volumes.

While Tyson and most of its biggest competitors still commit to avoiding drugs that are critical to treating deadly diseases in humans, its backpedaling on NAE is significant for several reasons. In chicken, the four biggest companies—Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride (owned by JBS), Wayne-Sanderson Farms, and Mountaire—control more than half of the market.

Now, despite all the prior momentum, none of them are exclusively practicing “no antibiotics ever” production. And some emerging research suggests that a class of drugs these companies are regularly using may contribute to the development of resistant strains of bacteria that do threaten human health.

The story of the end of the industry’s steady march toward getting antibiotics out of chicken feed is complicated, involving other unmet commitments, including shifting to raising slower-growing breeds that require fewer medications.

And it illustrates the limitations of corporate commitments to more responsible practices, in this and any industry: When the rubber meets the road in achieving capitalism’s goal of maximizing profits, shareholders may prioritize cost savings, especially after consumer attention on any given issue has waned over time.

Tyson did not respond to repeated email and telephone requests for interviews.

What it Takes to Raise Chickens Without Antibiotics

Americans have an insatiable appetite for nuggets, tenders, and boneless, skinless breasts: In 2023, individuals ate an average of 101 pounds of chicken, up from 82 pounds in 2013. To consistently produce that much chicken for billions of people, companies created a system that relies on regular antibiotics in feed and/or water.

Birds bred to grow fast and fat in crowded barns where waste accumulates get sick easily. Antibiotics are an easy fix, since preventing disease is more effective than treating it, and regular doses of the same drugs speed up growth. However, the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is one activity that has driven the development of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the U.S., 2.8 million people now contract hard-to-treat infections each year, and 35,000 die from those infections.

So, over the past decade, at the behest of consumer and public health advocacy groups, many chicken companies switched to NAE production.

At the heart of the issue throughout the industry is an overwhelmingly common poultry disease called coccidiosis, caused by a parasite that is almost universally present in chicken waste.

However, they did it while continuing to increase their production to a staggering high of more than 46 billion pounds in 2023. We’ll give you more chicken at lower prices, they said, while also promising better animal welfare, a lower carbon footprint, and less antibiotic use.

But each year, the percentage of chickens that got sick and died long before making it to a dinner plate ticked up. Now, about 11 million chicks die on farms per week, wasting all the resources that went into breeding, hatching, transporting, and feeding them along the way. A 2023 report from the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association found a direct link between the move away from antibiotics and rising mortality rates.

Multiple sources interviewed for this story said that many companies didn’t invest in changing the conditions in hatcheries and barns that made routine antibiotic use necessary in the first place.

“You shouldn’t ever just go in and pull antibiotics,” says Bruce Stewart-Brown, a senior vice president at Perdue Foods, which is the fifth-largest chicken producer in the country. “That’s not good for anything or anybody.”

Perdue, he said, started to transition away from antibiotics 20 years ago. And while it moved all of its chicken to NAE in 2014, he said his team is still continuously improving the techniques that make it possible.

At the heart of the issue throughout the industry is an overwhelmingly common poultry disease called coccidiosis, caused by a parasite that is almost universally present in chicken waste. When tens of thousands of chickens are crowded into a barn, waste accumulates, and the birds can’t escape it. The more they ingest through contaminated feed, dust, and litter, the more likely they are to get sick.

When infected, coccidiosis affects the birds’ gastrointestinal tracts, causing weight loss, diarrhea, and sometimes death. The intestinal damage it causes also creates conditions in which another common disease, necrotic enteritis, can thrive. Necrotic enteritis has similar effects but is much more deadly.

Stewart-Brown said Perdue starts with cleaner barns for its breeder flocks, which means eggs in the hatchery are less likely to carry the parasite from the get-go. Controlling for the disease on farms that produce meat chickens then involves a mix of vaccination, taking animal byproducts out of feed and adding prebiotics and probiotics (to improve digestive health), managing moisture in the litter that lines the bottom of barns, and using a class of drugs called anticoccidials (which are not classified as antibiotics) when all else fails. They also send chickens to slaughter earlier, which means the birds are smaller but have less time to get sick.

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The Appeal of Antibiotics

On the other hand, putting antibiotics in feed can wipe out the need for all of those changes in one fell swoop, holding disease at bay and allowing the birds grow more efficiently. The class of antibiotics commonly used are called ionophores, and the drugs’ effectiveness using is what motivated Tyson’s decision to resume antibiotic use, company executives explained during an August 2023 investor call. In addition to plant closures, CFO John Tyson said the change in antibiotic policy was one of several “meaningful steps to get the cost structure back in balance” in the company’s chicken business. President and CEO Donnie King added that “data suggests the use of ionophores can lead to more uniform birds with consistent weight.”

Ionophores are not used in humans, which is why they’re classified as “non-medically important.” Experts generally agree their use is of less concern than medically important antibiotics like tetracyclines that are widely used in beef and pork; some say ionophores pose little to no risk of contributing to resistance that drives untreatable infections in humans.

“It’s just an attempt to compensate for poor animal husbandry, and those bad practices are not a good justification for taking chances with a cornerstone of modern medicine.”

However, other experts are concerned about emerging research conducted in Europe. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumer Reports, explained that the studies suggest ionophore resistance genes may be essentially carrying resistance to other antibiotics along with them as they proliferate, driving the spread of bacteria that are resistant to drugs humans do need.

“It’s through this mechanism of co-selection—of being physically linked on the same pieces of genetic material,” Hansen said. “What’s happened over the past 15 or 20 years is that as we’ve used more and more chemicals, not only antibiotics . . . resistance elements to different things are increasingly being clustered.”

This matters because ionophores are also used routinely in beef and pork production. In fact, across agriculture, more ionophores are given to animals than any other antibiotic.

At this point, the science is new and the risks are still unclear, but “our position is that we shouldn’t take chances, to the extent that we’re talking about the routine use of antibiotics,” PIRG’s Delattre said. “It’s just an attempt to compensate for poor animal husbandry, and those bad practices are not a good justification for taking chances with a cornerstone of modern medicine.”

After Tyson reversed course, the Perdue marketing team jumped on the opportunity to highlight the fact that they weren’t backtracking on antibiotics. They launched an entire “Know Better” campaign around the NAE label, complete with a website that casts doubt on the safety of ionophores, a cheeky commercial about “throwing antibiotics” at your problems, and a stunt snack product. (Shake Shack used similar tactics to throw shade at Chick-Fil-A, with a full-page ad in The New York Times offering free chicken sandwiches with this riff on its competitor’s slogan: “Eat More Antibiotic-Free Chicken.”)

But at the same time, Perdue has no concrete plans to meet another related promise it made: To switch to a breed of chicken that grows at a slower pace, is more active, and has a stronger immune system. And some advocates say this is the change that would make NAE truly sustainable while improving animal welfare.

Slow Progress Toward a Slower-Growing Breed

For many years, animal welfare groups have been pushing chicken companies to use slower-growing breeds. The commercial chickens common across the industry are bred to grow fast and fat, with all of their energy sent to breast meat, and as a result they often suffer from immobility and other issues. They also get sick more due to underdeveloped immune systems, which makes antibiotics like ionophores a crucial production tool.

“The idea that people are making headway with slower-growing breeds and reducing antibiotics is just rubbish. Growth rate is generally getting worse, not better.”

In 2019, a coalition of animal welfare groups created the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) to push big grocers, restaurants, and especially chicken companies to commit to improving the lives of the birds in their supply chains.

Five years later, Compassion in World Farming’s 2023 ChickenTrack report on the BCC’s progress shows 52 companies have made a plan or changes of some kind. Many report improvements on metrics like welfare-improving lighting and “enrichments,” a term for things like perches and straw bales added to barns that allow birds to express their natural behaviors.

Julia Johnson, the leader of CIWF’s Compassion in Food Business in the U.S., pointed to the pandemic as interfering with progress companies might have made faster. This year, she said, she’ll be focused on getting companies to improve their BCC changes to litter, enrichments, and breeds. “We still have a long way to go, but I’m optimistic about the progress that we’ve seen.”

But only a few tiny producers have switched to breeds associated with healthier, happier chickens. Tyson has never committed to any aspect of the BCC, nor have the other big three companies that produce the majority of the country’s chickens.

“When I look at the report . . . there are two companies that have actually made progress towards breed. That’s very dispiriting to me,” said Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of Farm Forward. DeCoriolis said he appreciates that there’s a least a conversation happening on breed, and the other changes the BCC is pushing are certainly not bad for the animals. “But what I would like us to see is a laser focus on companies making progress on breed. The rest of it is, from my perspective, window dressing.”

One of the BCC’s biggest partners is the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a third-party animal welfare label associated with Whole Foods. GAP commissioned a study of alternative breeds in 2020 and in 2021, and issued a list of approved breeds it found improved chickens’ lives and health outcomes. At the time, GAP said it would require farms certified at all five of its levels to switch to one of the approved breeds by 2024. That has not happened to date. Attempts to reach out to GAP revealed the executive director who was leading the project is now employed only by Whole Foods, not GAP.

Meanwhile, the ChickenTrack report singled out Whole Foods’ lack of reporting on breed progress, despite the company publicizing a roadmap to meet the BCC standards. “If it is not introduced, Whole Foods Market will be recognized as a weakened policy in 2025,” it read.

In 2017, chicken producer Bell & Evans announced it was transitioning all of its chicken to a slower-growing, BCC-approved breed by 2018. Sources told Civil Eats the company has since gone back to a typical commercial breed, but the company did not respond to requests for comment. Meanwhile, two companies that set out to challenge big industrial chicken companies by starting with better breeds and eschewing preventative antibiotics from the get-go—Emmer & Co and Cooks Venture—have both gone out of business within the past few years.

“The idea that people are making headway with slower-growing breeds and reducing antibiotics is just rubbish. Growth rate is generally getting worse, not better,” Matt Wadiak, the founder of Cooks Venture, told Civil Eats. “People are just going with the bigger birds, and those bigger birds absolutely require pharmaceutical inputs.”

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Given his departure from Cooks Venture in 2023 and the company’s subsequent, dramatic downfall, Wadiak is unsurprisingly bitter when it comes to the chicken industry. He’s also right on this point.

In 2013, the average commercial chicken weighed 5.92 pounds at the time of slaughter. Last year, it weighed 6.54, after the same number of days. And when you look more closely at mortality numbers, the largest increases in deaths are happening among the heavier birds.

Cooks Venture’s breed, the Pioneer, was the first in a long time to represent a departure from that trajectory, and one that both farmers and animal welfare advocates were excited about. Wadiak said the company failed due to its an inability to secure capital in a wildly capital-intensive industry. He insists, though, that demand was strong and the price premium for his chickens was not that high.

“If Cooks could do that with a slower-growing breed, I don’t understand what is keeping Perdue from doing the same,” deCoriolis said.

“The fact that they’re still sticking with a no antibiotics policy . . . shows clearly that it can be done.”

CIWF’s Johnson insists consumers have not lost interest in better welfare for chickens. She points to sessions at chicken trade marketing events that suggest the companies believe the that they have to at least create the appearance of making progress based on Gen Z’s demands. “They’re talking about the next consumer for 2035, and animal welfare and sustainability are the top two and three concerns.”

On antibiotics, the average person on the street may not be aware of a problem, Delattre said, but “it doesn’t take more than 30 seconds to explain . . . and they understand that it’s a problem. Everybody understands the importance of antibiotics in modern medicine. And these days, almost everybody knows somebody who’s had a scare with a resistant infection,” he said.

In the end, two slightly different paths are emerging within industrial systems. While Tyson is putting antibiotics back into its production and other big players never eliminated them, Perdue is keeping them out. To help the birds survive without antibiotics, Perdue is vaccinating, keeping barns cleaner, and sending them to slaughter before disease risk spikes.

But while Perdue led the biggest pilot of slower growing, naturally healthier breeds to date, that trial run ended without changing anything across the company’s farms. Stewart-Brown said farmers loved raising the more active chickens, but argued that there “wasn’t much difference” in the chickens’ health and well-being compared to raising a standard, faster-growing breed. (Similarly, many independent farmers raising chickens on small farms choose standard breeds in pastured systems and say the chickens are healthy and active; it’s not a settled issue.)

Despite the ChickenTrack report classifying Perdue as “publicly committed to offering compliant BCC chicken,” Stewart-Brown said the company has no near-term plan to change its breed. The thing is: Corporate commitments are easy to make, and they’re easy to break.

And on the antibiotics issue, there are two ways of seeing how things have actually turned out so far. One is to conclude the larger industry will never be able to get routine drug use out of production until the entire system is overhauled, with slower-growing birds as an essential piece of the puzzle. “Our sense is that to truly solve the antibiotic problem, you have to both dramatically improve husbandry and improve genetics,” said deCoriolis.

On the other hand, advocates like Delattre look at Perdue, which has made smaller tweaks, and see a practical opportunity to solve at least one of the problems most pressing to public health.

“The fact that they’re still sticking with a no antibiotics policy . . . shows clearly that it can be done,” he said. “So why isn’t Tyson doing the same?”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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