What is the connection between so-called ‘superbugs’ and the chicken meat you eat?

  • Georgia, USA is the self-described poultry capital of the world
  • It raises 1.4 bn broilers, out of a total 9 bn birds in the US
  • If it were an independent country it would rank alongside Brazil or China
  • 63,151 tons of antibiotics are produced per year (126 m lbs)

According to an article published in The Guardian (13.10.2017), antibiotic resistance will be the cause of 10 million deaths a year. Now, many of these are likely to be connected to the chickens that are bred, given that over the decades they have been fed, along with almost every other meat animal, routine doses of antibiotics nearly very day of their lives. A meat chicken usually lives for 6 weeks and the antibiotic regime for it is typically one week on, one week off.

“A skittish active backyard bird has been turned into a fast-growing, slow-moving, docile block of protein, as muscle-bound and top-heavy as a bodybuilder in a kid’s cartton.”

In the United States animals are bred for abundance, consistency and speed – but not for flavour. With up to 40,000 chickens packed into one barn, antibiotics protect the animals against the likelihood of disease, so that the meat eaten by the consumer transmits food-borne illnesses and also antibiotic resistance.

With 700,000 deaths a year currently from antibiotic resistance, this is likely to increase to 10 million by 2050 at a global cost of $100 tn. 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US and more than half of those sold around the world are used in animals, not humans. Why? In order that they put on weight more quickly and as protection against disease in overcrowded conditions. Nearly two-thirds of these antibiotics are also used against human illness, which means that resistance against the farm use of these drugs also undermines the drugs’ usefulness in human medicine as well.

How antibacterial resistance works in pracice

This is a defensive adaptation that allows bacteria to protect themselves against the bacteria trying to kill them. As the Guardian article states, “It is created by subtle genetic changes that allow organisms to counter antibiotics’ attacks on them, altering their cell walls to keep drug molecules from attaching or penetrating, or forming tiny pumps that eject the drugs after they have entered the cell.”

The only ways to slow the emergence of resistance is to use antibiotics more conservatively – at the right dose, for the right length of time and for an organism that will be vulnerable to the drug. However, even in Europe this is not happening. Before 2005 the situation was the same as in the US and antibiotics could be added to premixes and grower diets for chickens ad libitum. After 2005, the EU introduced legislation where antibiotics can only be used to combat illnesses in poultry and a veterinary’s prescription is required. However, in practice vets often give these whenever they are asked for them, or the poultry producers seek out ‘black market’ antibiotics, mostly produced in China.

Some countries like The Netherlands as well as some producers like Perdue Farms have shown a willingness to relinquish antibiotics, already ahead of the curve in using probiotics to increase natural resistance and also to reduce the pH in a bird to less than 5.5 as the acid does not allow any bacteria to grow. Some supermarket chains like Whole Foods and Lidl (‘kurczak zagrodowy’/farmstead chicken brand here in Poland) are now selling slower-growing birds and there is an excellent French Label Rouge Program (no antibiotics, no added hormones, no growth stimulants, and no animal by-products in feed). However, the onus still remains on the consumer to start demanding meat from animals grown in facilities where antibiotics are used as infrequently as possible and only to cure sick animals rather to fatten or protect them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s