Like dominoes

By Emily Scarr

The dominoes are falling. Last Monday, Pilgrim’s Pride joined Tyson, the poultry industry leader, and (Maryland's own) Perdue, to commit to reducing the use of antibiotcis to raise their chickens. Pilgrim's Pride committeed to raise 25 percent of its birds without antibiotics by the end of 2018. Pilgrim’s is the second-largest U.S. chicken producer. Their move marks what The Wall St Journal called “one of the most aggressive timetables for reducing antibiotics use laid out by a U.S. poultry company.”

Until, of course, Tyson went one better yesterday, announcing plans to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its chicken operations by 2017.

Chicken raised without antibiotics is all the rage this spring. We hope to expand the range of ABX-free food this summer to Subway, the nation's largest fast food outlet.

Earlier this year, we helped convince McDonald’s to make a similar commitment, thanks to our staff, members and other supporters. After over 30,000 people asked the mega-chain to go antibiotic-free, McDonald’s announced that its 14,350 restaurants in the U.S. would sell only chicken raised without medically-important antibiotics by 2015. Panera purchases 28 million pounds of antibiotic-free chicken annually for its 1,800 locations in the United States and Canada. Alongside local restaurants and the likes of Chipotle, Chick-fil-a and others, these small steps are quickly becoming a movement—one that we'll urge Subway to join this summer.

Consumer demand and activism tipping a small market segment into a significant business has happened before, thanks to the organic and anti-GMO movements. Sales of antibiotic-free chicken were up 34 percent in 2013 and a Consumer Reports study suggest the potential for much higher growth. In their poll, a high majority of people said they’d pay more for meat raised without antibiotics—as much as a dollar per pound.

“We’re seeing quite a big growth in antibiotic-free product,” Wesley Batista, CEO of JBS S.A., a major stakeholder in Pilgrim’s Pride, told The Wall Street Journal. “As consumers and as the population is looking more for that, the industry needs to follow.”

A new antibiotic-free status quo in Big Poultry isn't just good for business; it’s necessary for our future well-being. Journalist Will Blackmore nailed it in his article for when he said that “antibiotic-free meat needs to go big to have a positive effect on public health.”

Decades of concern over the industry’s standard practice of feeding livestock and poultry regular low doses of antibiotics have lead up to this moment, and the agriculture industry is still buying more human medicines than ever before. According to the FDA, sales of medically important drugs increased 20 percent between 2009 and 2013. Although agricultural uses aren’t the only source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or catalyst for “the end of the antibiotic era,” it’s a major—and continuing--part of the problem.

Drug-resistant bacterial infections kill 23,000 people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Without dramatic action to reduce inappropriate use of antibiotics, this is going to get much worse.

We’re glad that the top three chicken producers in the country are moving to reduce or remove antibiotics use from their farms, but we aren’t done yet. Next stop: Subway.

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