Could feeding chickens their version of probiotic yogurt be the solution to our antibiotic-resistant superbug woes? Researchers think so, and some companies are jumping at the chance to offer such an alternative.
On Thursday, a European biotech company and a feed additive manufacturer announced a new line of chicken feed additives they've been developing to lace feed with probiotics to help farmers curb or cut their use of antibiotics. The probiotics work by keeping the birds' gut microbiota healthy, enabling them to fight off bad bacteria, and break down their food more efficiently so they grow nice and big, according to Carmen Cordova, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"A chicken is produced in a fairly clean and sterile environment because you want to keep out bad bacteria," Cordova explained in a phone interview. "The problem with that is you're also keeping out good bacteria. We know that having good bacteria in your gut can actually keep you healthier: you aren't as likely to get sick if bad bacteria does get in. So the probiotic is a way to feed that good bacteria into the chicken's gut."
Right now, antibiotics are widely used in farming both to prevent disease and promote growth in animals. But the problem is that overuse can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which sometimes make their way to humans and can cause untreatable infection.
As a result, in the last few years there has been pressure from consumers and large corporations alike to end the use of medically-important antibiotics. Everyone from McDonalds to meat producer Tyson have been vowing to phase out the use of human antibiotics in their chicken products. While there are livestock-specific antibiotics that chicken farmers can use, they're looking for other options too as they try to figure how to keep producing big, disease-free birds without using the treatments that have been standard practice since the 1960s.
"The farmers are not going to switch if they're jeopardizing their whole production, or the flock, or the uniformity of the production," Helle Warrer Poulsen, the vice president of animal health and nutrition for Novozymes, one of the companies working on the new additive, said. "They're looking for alternatives and they're looking for reliable alternatives, so our success will be defined by how well we can provide good, reliable data."
Novozymes and partner company Adisseo are currently working with bacteria in the genus Bacillus, looking for a chicken-friendly analog to Lactobacillus, which is often found in the probiotic yogurt humans eat, according to Poulsen. The companies are still about a year out from having the probiotic additive on the shelves, but Poulsen said they're currently in the testing phase to see how effective the feed is and what other benefits it might be able to provide farmers.
Farmers are under increasing pressure to change their practices without affecting their productivity, which makes finding a solution a daunting task, according to Thomas Van Boeckel, a postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton who specializes in antibiotic resistance in agriculture. But Boeckel said if companies like Novozymes can get the numbers to back up their products, probiotics could be a good alternative.
"The livestock industry is understanding that the wind is turning and that soon or later, under new regulations and customer demand for safe products, antibiotics as growth promoters will be phased out," he told me via email.
Still, probiotic chicken "yogurt" alone won't completely replace antibiotics. Cordova told me farmers are also looking to vaccinations and prebiotics, as well as a combination of tools, in an attempt to find safest passage in the future of farming.
"It's just taken some time for the awareness to really build and for it to be acknowledged in the agricultural industry," she said.