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Safety debate continues over the use of antibiotics by chicken processors

By BECKY GILLETTE

Nearly 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are put into animal feed to promote growth and prevent disease. Concerns about that contributing to the growth of antibiotic resistance bacteria that can affect people has led to concerns being raised by organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization.

FDA is calling for a voluntary plan to phase out the use of certain antibiotics used to promote growth.

“Because all uses of antimicrobial drugs, in both humans and animals, contribute to the development of antimicrobial resistance, it is important to use these drugs only when medically necessary,” the FDA says. “Governments around the world consider antimicrobial-resistant bacteria a major threat to public health. Illnesses caused by drug-resistant strains of bacteria are more likely to be potentially fatal when the medicines used to treat them are rendered less effective.”

But Dr. Phil Stayer, corporate veterinarian for Sanderson Farms in Laurel, says there is a lot of misinformation about the subject. First, he contends the antibiotics used by growers for Sanderson Farms are not prophylactic antibiotics used merely to enhance growth. Instead, he said they are metaphylactic, meaning they are used to prevent a disease you know will occur without use of the antibiotics in feed.

“If you know an animal is going to become ill, failure to treat it will cause suffering,” Stayer said. “Superbugs do exist in respect to antibiotics. But there is no direct link to superbugs in humans and the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. There is speculation that antibiotics used in animals will cause problems in humans. But there has been no proven link. People usually pick up the superbugs in a hospital that is a very concentrated environment. It is usually spread from human-to-human.”

Stayer said another misconception is that chickens labeled “antibiotic free” means that other chickens not labeled that way contain residues of antibiotics.

“We make sure the antibiotic is long, long gone before the bird goes to market,” he said. “And we are very careful with the way the chickens are processed to prevent bacterial contamination. Chickens are taken to processing where the feathers and viscera are removed — the inside and outside bacteria. The chicken is washed and washed and washed, and then refrigerated to stop the bacteria from growing. That should keep bacteria at bay. Then when you cook it, it should kill any bacteria that is left on it.”

Another point he feels is largely misunderstood by the public is that the poultry industry doesn’t use the same type of antibiotics used on people. The biggest category of antibiotic they use are in the ionophore class of compounds that control parasites while having antibiotic effects.

“That is never used in people,” Stayer said. “Europe doesn’t even classify ionophore compounds as antibiotics. There is zero risk to people from using this class of compounds.”

While consumer demand for animals not raised with antibiotics is growing, Stayer said it is still a small part of the market. Most people are not willing to spend more money for products labeled antibiotic free.

Kirk Daniel, meat and seafood associate team leader for Whole Foods Market in Jackson, said many of their customers do believe it is important to purchase meat raised without use of antibiotics.

“Anything injected into an animal, if we consume it, we are also ingesting it,” Daniel said. “I try to stay away from it and I would warn anybody else to.”

But Stayer argues when you buy chickens raised without antibiotics, you are paying a lot more, but may not be getting a superior product.

“I’m going to argue you get nothing more and may actually be getting more bad bacteria than with a conventional chicken,” he said.

“Consumer safety is number one. We are not going to do anything to endanger our consumers, which happen to be our families, as well.”

Another label on chicken that can be confusing is “natural.” That USDA labeling merely means that it hasn’t been altered by the addition of salt or fillers.

“Our label is natural chicken,” Stayer said. “Nothing has been added to it. On the other side, organic has a whole levels of things to abide by.”

Chickens and other animals taste like what they eat. So Stayer maintains that a free range chicken might be more gamey.

“We want our chicken to be more mild and tender,” Stayer said. “We pamper our poultry. They have air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. They are inside so they won’t be eaten by a hawk. Their lives are short, but good.”

Stayer said it is also important to provide affordable protein for people. Organic chicken can cost much more.

“We will be the low cost provider, but we will do the right thing for the animal,” Stayer said. “We will not turn our backs on technology.”

Federal regulations have banned antibiotic residues in finished food products since the 1950s, and despite labeling of chickens as “hormone free,” growth hormones are also banned in poultry production.

Stayer said Sanderson Farms, which is building new production facilities, is the fastest growing poultry corporation in the country.

Poultry is the top valued commodity in Mississippi with about 1,900 poultry farms that produce 762 million birds per year.

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About Becky Gillette

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