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Chick-fil-A's antibiotic-free chicken could change poultry farming

Chick-fil-A goes antibiotic free
Chick-fil-A goes antibiotic free
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Chick-fil-A restaurants announced yesterday they will source only chicken from suppliers that do not use antibiotics (Feb. 11, 2014). This level of greater transparency will reduce antibiotic resistance in humans and knock down many of the damaging practices that pervade poultry production.

The decision is a landmark move because it will reduce antibiotic exposure for Chick-fil-A's customers. It will also prove that large-scale poultry producers can provide antibiotic-free poultry at an affordable price. Antibiotic-free chicken is currently nearly double the price of conventional chicken in grocery stores. And, it will also change common misconceptions about hormone vs antibiotic use in chicken farming that mislead shoppers.

The American poultry industry has long claimed that judicious use of antibiotics is safe and that it is not possible to produce affordable chicken that is raised without antibiotics. It's an excuse that American poultry producers have been hiding behind for too long, which has led to an epidemic level of antibiotic resistance, say safety and clean-food advocates. The Centers for Disease Control has called for a phasing out of antibiotic use in farming to reduce harm to millions and reduce thousand of deaths.

Can it be done? Chick-fil-A plans to prove that it can. The company anticipates a phase in to begin in 2015 and completion within five years."A shift this significant will take some time, as it requires changes along every point of the supply chain – from the hatchery to the processing plant. Our suppliers are committed, and we pledge to have this conversion complete within five years or sooner based on supply chain readiness,” said Tim Tassopoulos, executive vice president of operations of Chick-fil-A.

What few customers understand is that antibiotics are used in poultry (and pork) production to not only reduce and treat disease, but also to fatten up the animals, similarly to the way hormones are used in beef production. Nearly 80 percent of the American antibiotics market are sold for use on food-producing animals, according to the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. This practice leads to antibiotic resistance in humans because the antibiotic-resistant superbugs in the chicken are passed on to humans after consumption. Nearly half of all poultry contains these superbugs and presents an epidemic of food safety issues, according to studies by Consumer Reports.

Poultry producers repeatedly confuse consumers by overplaying use of the word hormones and downplaying antibiotic use. Nearly every mainstream poultry brand in America alludes to their product being "natural" and "hormone-free." The most recent misleading ad campaign that plays this up is the "Perdue Way," by Perdue chicken. Here is an example from the company's website:

"A lot of chicken companies cut corners by feeding their chickens all sorts of animal by-products. But PERDUE® chickens are always fed a 100% vegetarian diet, including locally sourced corn and soybeans, and marigolds. And we never use added hormones or steroids.* Because we believe that if you wouldn't feed it to your family, we shouldn't give it to our chickens."

Consumers naturally think this is a positive, but many fail to read the small print: *Federal law prohibits the use of hormones or steroids in poultry. Though FDA and federal law allows this type of food labeling, it draws attention away from the real issue, antibiotic use in poultry farming.

When a major fast food chain steps up to challenge the status quo, it can only help to improve the health of Americans and move the lexicon away from the kinds of legal but misleading marketing that poultry producers use to convince customers that they are producing chicken in a better way.

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