As consumers are becoming more aware of what they're putting into their bodies, the demand for poultry that's free of antibiotics is sweeping across the nation. Fast-food chains, restaurants, and public schools are rapidly jumping on the trend to offer alternative options on the menu.
Since 2007, the largest poultry producers have been voluntarily promising to reduce or eliminate the practice of using antibiotics to produce the food Americans eat. This decision has far-reaching consequences in how farmers cultivate healthy, profitable flocks regardless of whether the birds are intended to be layers or broilers.
The Push for Antibiotic-Free Poultry
Since the 1940s, antibiotics have been used in the raising of commercial poultry flocks to reduce bacterial and viral infections inside confined animal feeding operations, thus reducing mortality. This allows farmers to grow healthier animals, reducing production cost and increasing profits. While this method can produce healthier flocks, the problem is that a sizeable portion of these antibiotics are also used in human medicine. Over the decades, certain bacteria strains have developed resistance to the routinely administered medications, making modern drug treatments less effective.
Overuse is believed to have contributed to the generation of superbugs that are creating worldwide epidemics. In a 2014 report, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that overuse of antibiotics in animal husbandry has contributed to needless deaths from common infections and minor injuries, such as pneumonia and MRSA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) backs up this assertion with statistics noting that each year 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections that lead to roughly 23,000 deaths.
In order to receive the new USDA certification of being antibiotic-free, chickens must not be given medications intended for humans unless there is a genuine need to treat an illness. In these instances, the drugs must be administered under the supervision and prescription of licensed veterinarians, notes the National Chicken Council. The organic label is only given to poultry that's raised without ionophore antibiotics and meets strict organic feed guidelines. These ionophore antibiotic feed additives are considered a separate class since they're used to manage poultry-related infections, such as coccidiosis.
Farmers seeking these designations are required to submit to a rigorous auditing process that verifies the poultry has never been treated with antibiotics. Valid concerns are creeping into the national debate about how poultry farmers can cost-effectively manage the costs of raising organic and antibiotic-free birds.
Antibiotic-Free Poultry Farming Techniques
While this mainstream move provides many health benefits to humans, removing antibiotics from the diet of poultry creates higher overall mortality rates, smaller sizes and more frequent occurrences of diseases. The biggest concerns are clostridia, which typically leads to necrotic enteritis, as well as Salmonella and Campylobacter, two foodborne bacterial diseases that are exceptionally dangerous to consumers.
To combat these common issues, farmers are exploring new industry advancements and resurrecting traditional techniques that promote growth and reduce illness without using antibiotics.
Adding organic supplements to poultry feed and drinking water is the most common remedy. Natural antibiotics, such as apple cider vinegar and iodine, have been used for decades to prevent bacterial diseases, regulate hormones and enhance nutrition. The extensive list of effective items includes essential oils, plant extracts, enzymes, organic acids and probiotics blended with prebiotics.
These enhancements are believed to improve eggshell quality, improve feed conversion, boost immune systems and reduce mortality. Despite a shortage of scientific studies examining the effectiveness, a USDA-sponsored study showed that oregano oil lowers the death rate from the common abdominal infection ascites by 59 percent.
Farmers are also turning to in-feed products that include natural microflora probiotics to stimulate growth, improve health and prevent bacterial infections. However, while these options are costly, they may yet prove to be more cost-effective than not using them. Unfortunately, there are varying results in effectiveness between regional locations, farmers and even flocks.
Sustainable Farming Techniques
Techniques regularly employed in green farming, such as decreasing flock size per operation and raising free range poultry, reduce many of the frequent health and wellness problems. A well-kept housing environment is just as important as the feeding program. One of the biggest issues with keeping large flocks in tight spaces is the excessive level of ammonia, which impacts performance and growth rate, causes blindness and respiratory issues and leads to premature deaths. Using powerful fans to increase ventilation not only removes ammonia but also reduces the humidity that generates mold.
Facility infrastructure is critical to minimizing contamination of flocks from disease-carrying organisms, such as nearby wildlife, on-site pets, stagnant ponds and pest-infested plants. Additional biosecurity risks include the type of birds bred and how new species are integrated into existing stock as well as property layout, human interaction and proper feed storage. Proactively controlling these factors is among the most effective ways to raise a healthy flock free of antibiotics.