AMES, Iowa — Antibiotic-free programs in poultry production may have some poor consequences for the birds.
Death rates among broilers have increased from four to five percent, said poultry veterinarian Donald Ritter, director of technical marketing at Mountaire Farms, the sixth largest broiler operation in the United States.
“I think we have swung the pendulum too far in some of our marketing practices, which translates into production practices. The animals are suffering. We need to bring it back to reality and bring it back to a sustainable, ethical program,” he said at the National Institute of Animal Agriculture antibiotics symposium held in Ames, Iowa.
Data collected from 42 broiler veterinarians managing health of birds in no antibiotics ever programs reported removing drugs from the production program made the chicken welfare worse.
“The goal is responsible antibiotic use, not necessarily reductions,” he said.
Producers may sometimes sacrifice animal health and welfare to maintain a no-antibiotics ever label.
The concept started in 2013 as a marketing program with one company. The premium was about an extra dollar per pound but in the current market, the premium for antibiotic-free is 10 to 20 cents per pound of boneless breast meat, said Ritter.
He argues antibiotic use should be integrated into responsible animal-care programs with optimized husbandry, sanitation, biosecurity, good vaccination program and alternative products.
In the last five years, antibiotic use in feed and water has gone down in the United States.
Chicken Farmers of Canada has a phase-in program to eliminate the use of antibiotics important to human health from production. Regulations also disallow using antimicrobials for growth promotion.
Consumers may have driven the demand for no antibiotics because of the concern they may pick up drug-resistant bacteria from food animals.
The chance of it happening is low but not zero. There are also concerns that drugs commonly used to treat human health issues will become less effective due to the potential increase in drug-resistant bacteria.
About half those participating in consumer polls believe antibiotics used during animal production are harmful.
“Consumer understanding about antimicrobial resistance and food borne pathogens is very hard for them to understand,” Ritter said.
Animals that were treated for illness should not be marketed as second class, he said.
“We are becoming antibiotic use snobs: I use less than you, so I am doing something better than you,” said Ritter.
“We did it to ourselves. We are going to have to get food buyers and decision makers at retail and restaurants to change their thought process because we have swung that pendulum too far.”
Antibiotics are needed for sick birds but should not be used for disease prevention, he said.
Veterinarians have to commit to programs that use responsible antibiotic programs.
It is better to treat the fewest numbers possible and use more products that are not medically important to people.
Veterinarians and physicians blame each other for over-prescribing but all users of antibiotics must do their part to preserve their effectiveness.
“We have got to admit that veterinary med is part of this problem,” he said.