Food by VICE

Why It's a Huge Deal that a Major Chicken Producer Is Going to Stop Using Antibiotics

In an announcement this week by the company’s chairman, Jim Perdue, we learned two things: that the chicken purveyor is the first major poultry supplier to remove all antibiotics from its chicken supply, and that it’s going through a lot of baby wipes.

by Alex Swerdloff
Oct 8 2016, 9:00pm

Photo via Flickr user USDAgov

Guess who is the biggest user of baby wipes in the world? Nope, it's not some clandestine group of adult baby diaper-lovers.

It's Perdue Farms. As in the fourth-largest poultry producer in the nation.

In an announcement this week by the company's chairman, Jim Perdue, at the Wall Street Journal's Global Food Forum, we learned two things. First, the chicken purveyor became the first major poultry supplier to remove all antibiotics from its chicken supply. Second, it's going through a lot of baby wipes. Like, a lot a lot.

"Eggs that come from a farm come in dirty," Perdue said. "We had to clean up our act in the hatcheries quite a bit." He added that the company harvests no less than 13 million chickens each and every week and, in addition to the wipes, they are using vaccines, probiotics, and herbs like oregano and thyme to keep those chickens healthy. "They can do the job that some of the antibiotics were doing," Perdue said.

READ MORE: Are the Workers Who Process America's Chicken Forced to Wear Diapers?

Perdue Farms' move away from antibiotics began in 2002. By 2007, they removed all growth-promoting antibiotics, and by 2014, they had figured out how to stop using antibiotics that are also prescribed to humans. Now, all animal antibiotics have also been eliminated. The only chickens who get antibiotics at all, Perdue said, are those who are diagnosed with illness—about 5 percent of the lot. Those chickens are treated, but not sold under the Perdue name, allowing the company to live up to its "No Antibiotics Ever" promise.

The task wasn't easy: "They get sick because it's like a kindergarten." Bronchial infections are not uncommon in chickens, Perdue said.

David Plunkett, a Senior Staff Attorney for Food Safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told MUNCHIES, "Perdue's action will mean there is less risk that antibiotics valuable to human health will become ineffective due to overuse in animals. Consumers can be grateful for responsible producers like Perdue, and should continue to use their purchasing power to drive other suppliers and retailers to follow Perdue's lead."

Perdue also announced that the company is feeding its chickens a 100-percent vegetarian diet. He said the chickens taste better on this feed and that the company was inspired to move in that direction by the growth of their organic division. Perdue said, "Organic meat seems to be different" and that customers prefer it; organic chickens are also a lot more active than non-organic ones. The company is now the largest seller of organic chickens in the US.

The Center for Food Safety told MUNCHIES, "Perdue stands to demonstrate what many others in the industry have claimed is impossible: Animals can be raised safely and humanely without relying on routine doses of antibiotics. What is critical to note in the example Perdue is setting, is that the company is eliminating routine antibiotics use in conjunction with implementing new management practices that are designed to protect the health of their birds."

READ MORE: Despite the Dangers, Big Ag Is Using More Animal Antibiotics Than Ever

Animal Welfare Approved agrees that the move is a step in the right direction, but feels it's only one piece of a larger puzzle that needs to be addressed: "Piecemeal tweaking doesn't address the need for systemic change. Eliminating routine antibiotics has only been proven to work long-term in high-welfare, pasture-based systems, and a simple 'antibiotic-free' claim doesn't offer that assurance."

Meanwhile, the company is studying how to incorporate some of the benefits of organic farming in its program called Commitments to Animal Care. A press release issued by the company says they hope to "encourage natural behavior, further reduce stress and avoiding suffering" in their chickens.

"Consumers will let us do to our chickens what they do to their kids," Perdue said. Who knew that running a chicken company had so much in common with managing a daycare center?

Dare we ask if the baby wipes are biodegradable? Perhaps we'll celebrate this victory and leave that for another story.