Tyson Foods Chickens Soon Antibiotic-Free

5282610081_c071069aab_zOn Monday, Tyson Foods announced it will phase out the use of antibiotics in its U.S. broiler chicken flocks, chickens raised for meat, by the end of September 2017. The company will report annually on its progress, starting with its 2015 Sustainability Report.

The Natural Resources Defense Council called Tyson’s decision a “tipping point” for removing antibiotics from the nation’s chicken supply chain.

Tyson Foods already stopped using antibiotics in its 35 broiler hatcheries, but adult birds will still receive antibiotics for the time being. Now Tyson will require a veterinary prescription for sick chickens on broiler farms. This is the latest step in a phase-out that began in 2011. Tyson has already reduced antibiotic use by 80 percent since that date.

Now that they’ve tackled chickens, the company will look to reduce the use of human antibiotics on cattle, hog and turkey farms. The poultry supplier is currently forming working groups with independent farmers and people from its beef, pork and turkey supply chains to discuss the issue.

“Given the progress we’ve already made reducing antibiotics in our broilers, we believe it’s realistic to shoot for zero by the end of our 2017 fiscal year,” said Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods. “But we won’t jeopardize animal well-being just to get there. We’ll use the best available treatments to keep our chickens healthy, under veterinary supervision.”

Other companies have made similar pledges to phase out the use of antibiotics from their chicken supply chains, including Perdue, McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Pilgrims. Some companies are already serving customers antibiotic-free meat and poultry, such as Panera Bread, Chipotle, Whole Foods and Applegate.

But it’s no wonder the NRDC says Tyson’s decision may have the greatest impact: The company processes more than 38 million broiler chickens a week, according to the industry journal WATT. Tyson controls 23 percent of the market among the top 20 broiler companies, which collectively control almost all American broiler chicken production.

With Tyson’s commitment — and those of other leaders like Perdue, Pilgrims and Fieldale Farms —  38 percent of the chickens raised by those top 20 companies will soon be antibiotic-free. Or as NRDC says, “By our math, Tyson’s pledge means that more than one-third of the entire U.S. chicken industry has now eliminated or pledged to eliminate routine use of medically-important antibiotics.”

“Antibiotic-resistant infections are a global health concern,” said Tyson CEO Donnie Smith. “We’re confident our meat and poultry products are safe, but want to do our part to responsibly reduce human antibiotics on the farm so these medicines can continue working when they’re needed to treat illness.”

The widespread problem of antimicrobial resistance

Antimicrobial resistance, which includes antibiotic resistance, is a major global problem. Patients with infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria face greater risks than patients with non-resistant infections. They even face death. For example, patients with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) are estimated to be 64 percent more likely to die than people with a non-resistant form of the infection.

The World Health Organization (WHO) cites the inappropriate use of antimicrobial drugs, including antibiotics, as one of the reasons for antimicrobial resistance. The WHO specifically sites the inappropriate use in animal husbandry as one of the causes for the widespread of antimicrobial resistance.

Image credit: Flickr/Kristine Paulus

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.