Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why do they give chickens antibiotics?

That's a great question.  And the answer depends on who you're hearing it from.  According to the Chicken Farmers of Canada:

Antibiotics play an important role in providing a safe product for consumers, as well as in animal welfare and in animal health. Antibiotics help to maintain healthy birds, thereby ensuring a safe food supply for consumers. .... A small amount of antibiotics may be, but is not always, included in chicken feed to prevent disease.
That sounds reasonable enough.  But the story doesn't end there.  There are numerous other sources warning that the widespread and unregulated use of antibiotics in Canada is resulting in meat contaminated with antibiotic resistant bacteria.  This is what Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Food Animals has to say on the subject:
Canadian doctors and scientists say that feeding antibiotics to healthy beef cattle, poultry and hogs poses a danger to humans, and they want to government to investigate the practice.

Lacing animals' feed with low-dose antibiotics to accelerate their growth is spreading drug-resistant bacteria to humans and rendering common antibiotics useless to treat illness, they say.

A food chain contaminated by drug-resistant bacteria bodes ill for both public health and the cost of health care, and as drug resistance in microbes increases, the number of effective antibiotics in the doctors' arsenal has dropped.

Notice that the poultry industry talks about keeping birds healthy and preventing disease, whereas other sources point to antibiotics being used to stimulate growth, which is clearly an important factor in the highly competitive, margin-driven poultry industry.  For more information, take a look at this PBS article

Ranchers and farmers ... discovered decades ago that small doses of antibiotics administered daily would make most animals gain as much as 3 percent more weight than they otherwise would. In an industry where profits are measured in pennies per animal, such weight gain was revolutionary.

Although it is still unclear exactly why feeding small "sub-therapeutic" doses of antibiotics, like tetracycline, to animals makes them gain weight, there is some evidence to indicate that the antibiotics kill the flora that would normally thrive in the animals' intestines, thereby allowing the animals to utilize their food more effectively.
Just in case you're wondering, Windsor CLUCK is not suggesting the production of urban chickens for meat consumption.  That's a whole different topic, and CLUCK is interested purely in legalized hens for egg production.   We are, however, concerned about the honesty of the messages coming from the poultry industry.

If we can't trust them on the reasons why antibiotics are given to chickens produced for their meat, should we believe everything they say about the way their eggs are produced as well?

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