Are There Antibiotics in Chicken Meat? Part 3

Do you buy meat that is labeled “raised without antibiotics”? Is antibiotic resistance a growing problem when it comes to poultry meat? Should we be worried about antibiotics being fed to chickens?

To understand antibiotic use in chickens a bit more, we reached out to Charles L. Hofacre, DVM, MAM, PhD, Professor and Director of Clinical Services, Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia; and Ken Macklin, PhD, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist Poultry Health, Environmental Issues and Biosecurity, Department of Poultry Science, Auburn University.

Are chickens raised without antibiotics better than those raised with antibiotics?

Dr. Charles L. Hofacre:

By law, there is a withdrawal time for each of the antibiotics based on how that antibiotic is cleared by the birds – either their liver or their kidneys – out of their system. Is it less of a risk to eat chicken that has never been exposed to an antibiotic? Since we don’t know that there is any risk of antibiotic resistance being greater because of antibiotics use in food animals, I don’t know if there is any real benefit to a consumer that’s eating chicken that is from an antibiotic-free flock. Some people are willing to pay the money for a Jaguar and some people would rather just have a Toyota. If that’s what you choose, then that’s fine.

Are there any alternatives to antibiotics?

Dr. Charles L. Hofacre:

There is an incredible amount of research dollars being spent right now to look for non-antibiotic compounds to prevent the intestinal diseases. When it comes to the treatment, I don’t know if we can find alternatives. We really need the antibiotics to treat the sick animals. When it comes to preventing that intestinal disease, there’s a lot of work going on right now to look at different types of compounds that could be put in the feed or the water that could help prevent Coccidia or clostridium, the secondary bacteria, from causing disease. There has been some work looking at vaccines to prevent these intestinal diseases, but as of yet, no one has been successful in finding a vaccine to prevent some of the intestinal diseases.

Dr. Ken Macklin:

Because of consumer demand, the poultry industry is moving away from antibiotics and trying to find suitable replacements, like vaccines and probiotics (good bacteria) and prebiotics (eating a diet that will promote good bacteria growth). A lot of companies are starting to use vaccines, with mixed success.

What’s going on in the industry in regards to antibiotic use? Are farmers trying to use fewer antibiotics?

Dr. Charles L. Hofacre:

Farmers have always been very judicious in the way that they’ve used antibiotics. It’s a business. Famers only use things that they need to use. Farmers are as concerned about creating any kind of risk for their own family as they are with someone they would sell their chicken to. They’re not going to do things that are illegal or unethical. Less antibiotic use is being driven by consumers. It’s not being driven by the government. Some consumers have more disposable income and are willing to spend more on chicken if they know it was grown in a certain way, and that market is increasing in the United States. We’re starting to see some of the larger chicken companies recognizing that and providing that product.

Dr. Ken Macklin:

The poultry industry is trying to meet consumer demands and move away from antibiotics, especially those antibiotics important for human health. Europe has already moved away from certain classes of antibiotics, but they haven’t eliminated all antibiotics. The challenges are that when farmers eliminate certain antibiotics, the chickens have more intestinal diseases, which means the chickens have to be treated more often. Because of this, the cost of chicken meat will go up.

Is there regulation of antibiotics?

Dr. Charles L. Hofacre:

The FDA has been quite wise in what they are doing with their antibiotic guidance documents (209 and 213), which must be fully in effect by December 2016. Antibiotics in food animals will be put under veterinary oversight, and pharmaceutical companies can no longer have a claim for growth promotants on their antibiotics. Pharmaceutical companies must show that a specific antibiotic at a specific dosage is preventing a disease. The FDA is not going to ban all use of antibiotics – they are only banning those in which they can’t demonstrate prevent a disease. The pharmaceutical companies have to change all of the labels to require a VFD (veterinary feed directive similar to a prescription). Farmers must have veterinary oversight when feeding antibiotics.

Is there a testing process to make sure there are no antibiotics in the meat?

Dr. Charles L. Hofacre:

The whole process starts whenever a pharmaceutical company is going through the approval process with the FDA. They have to demonstrate to the FDA that there is no antibiotic residue remaining in the meat or in the liver or the kidneys or any specific tissues of that animal for a certain period of time, called a withdrawal period. For some drugs, the withdrawal time is 24 hours, for others it might be 72 hours, for others 5 days. That’s a legal requirement, and if the withdrawal times before an animal goes to market are not followed farmers can go to jail. The USDA takes samples for the FDA of different tissues from each processing day at each processing plant, and they run a whole panel of the most commonly used antibiotics (and even some of those that aren’t approved for use in chickens) to make sure everyone is playing by the rules. The United States has one of the premier systems for that in the world.

Dr. Ken Macklin:

There are no antibiotics in the meat. There are withdrawal times so the antibiotic works through the animal’s system, and then, the meat is tested to make sure there is no antibiotic residue in the meat. The withdrawal time is the amount of time it takes for the antibiotic to work through the system so that it’s no longer present.

Looking for more information?

Are There Antibiotics in Chicken Meat? Part I: Reasons Why Antibiotics Are Used in Poultry Production

Are There Antibiotics in Chicken Meat? Part II: Antibiotics Classifications and Safety

Tasty chicken, pepper & onion skewers” by David Precious is licensed under CC BY 2.0.