There is currently a strong and highly publicized movement against antibiotic use in meat and poultry in the United States, with more and more producers pledging to forego the use of antibiotics in some capacity. As of 2016, it is estimated that only about 5-8% of meat is produced completely without the use of antibiotics, though the demand for and growth of the meat type is expected to dramatically change the landscape of the overall market.
The reason producers use antibiotics is that having the safety net of antibiotic use allows for much cheaper production of meat. Chickens which are fed antibiotics can live in more cramped, unsanitary conditions without getting sick, and can also increase yields as some antibiotics promote weight gain. The movement against antibiotic use aims to protect consumers from antibiotic resistance and early puberty in children.
Producers and operators make ambitious goals
Tyson, the nation’s largest producer of chicken, pledged to stop the use of human antibiotics by 2017, but will still use some antibiotics for disease prevention. Pilgrim’s Pride, the second largest producer of chicken in the United States claims that at least 25% of their chickens will be antibiotic free by 2018. The most ambitious claim comes from the third largest producer, Perdue Farms, which has been working towards its goal of No Antibiotics Ever (NAE), moving from 3% of its chickens raised without the drugs in 2007, to 67% in 2015. Foster Farms, recently recovering from a well-publicized salmonella scandal, has pledged to stop using antibiotics to promote growth.
These moves on the supply side are not only a response to pressure from retail consumers, but from foodservice operators. McDonald’s recently stated it will stop supplying chickens from producers which use human antibiotics by 2017; Subway stated it will go antibiotic-free by 2025, and Chick-fil-A by 2019.
Another pressure on the meat producing industry is the recent movement of hospitals to source only meat which does not contain human antibiotics. The reason for this move is obvious; if eating antibiotics through meat reduces the effectiveness of such antibiotics when taken for illness, the condition of meat consumed becomes a medical issue. “Health care is really voicing their demand for [antibiotic-free meat] products,” stated Hillary Bisnett, a food expert for Practice Greenhealth and Health Care without Harm. "Hospitals understand antibiotic resistance, and they're being asked to steward their own use of antibiotics. So it's very easy for them to say, ‘[meat] producers need to be doing their part, too.’”
But how realistic are they?
The success of these foodservice and institutional operators to fulfil their goals is contingent on the availability of antibiotic free chicken at competitive prices. McDonald’s had 14,325 domestic outlets and US $35.8 billion in sales last year, while Subway, the operator with the most outlets in the United States, had 27,407 outlets and US $12.8 billion in sales in 2015. These restaurants supply a very large quantity of chicken and operate on slim margins. In these times of tight public budgets, hospitals too demand competitive prices, and may not ultimately be able to fulfil their stated intentions of supplying only antibiotic-free meat, which is generally 30—50% more expensive.
Another factor influencing the ability of operator and producers to fulfil their stated goals is the stipulations of the stated goals themselves. Although Perdue has pledged to go completely antibiotic free, whistle-blowers have pointed out instances in which NAE chickens still experience some benefits of the drugs through residual antibiotics in their litter, leftover from the last rotation of antibiotic treated birds. Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride both pledged to halt antibiotic use in some form, but not entirely.
Determining the success of these operators and producers to fulfil their promises may not be a simple process. These companies garner a great deal of press when they make their promises, but conversely do not attract attention when they break them. Ultimately, in the absence of legislation prohibiting antibiotic use, it will be the American consumer who determines the success of these companies in reducing and/or halting use of antibiotics and antibiotic treated meat. The consumer will determine success by either paying the price for a safer, but more expensive product, or not.