The new policy from the company means that more than one-third of the U.S. chicken industry has pledged to eliminate routine use of "medically important antibiotics."
Perdue, McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Pilgrim’s have all announced steps to scale back their use of antibiotics. Companies like Panera Bread, Chipotle, Whole Foods and Applegate have also sworn off antibiotics. But Tyson processes more chicken than any of these companies, pumping out more than 38 million broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) per week.
The Natural Resources Defense Council called the Tyson news a "tipping point for getting the chicken industry off antibiotics." Yet when it comes to protecting against antibiotic resistance, critics say the change may be too little and too late.
The trouble is that for years, the meat industry hasn't used antibiotics to just treat sick animals. The antibiotics are also used to make animals bigger so they produce more meat and raise profits. And because of the heavy use of antibiotics, these animals can develop resistant bacteria in their guts, which can then be spread to humans.
Antibiotics have only been commercially available since the 1940s, and antibiotic resistance has been around almost as long, as the timeline below from the CDC shows. Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, warned the public of bacterial resistance to his drug as early as 1945, when he accepted the Nobel prize for his invention.
Today, antibiotic-resistant infections cause at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the US each year -- more deaths than caused by drug overdoses, cars or firearm assaults. Sicknesses and deaths caused by antibiotic-related superbugs, like methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium difficile colitis (C diff) are becoming frighteningly common. Antibiotic resistant bacteria threaten not just the very sick, but those undergoing procedures like joint replacements, C-sections, organ transplants, or chemotherapy, as well as patients with diabetes, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. A report commissioned by the UK government estimates that, by 2050, antimicrobial-resistant infections could kill 10 million people a year across the world – more than currently die each year due to cancer.
The meat industry is a primary breeding ground for these resistant strains. Estimates vary, but data from the FDA shows the U.S. sells more kilograms of antibiotics for food-producing animals than for people. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, up to 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to healthy food animals.
The situation is especially dangerous when the same types of antibiotics are used in humans and animals, where animal use essentially creates a test laboratory for antibiotic-resistant strains.
Many of the animals that receive these antibiotics aren't even sick. The FDA has approved the use of antibiotics for disease treatment, control and prevention – meaning it's not just sick animals are given antibiotics, but also those at risk of becoming sick – as well as growth promotion or increased feed efficiency.
It's that last use, where animals are given low doses of antibiotics for growth promotion and increased feed efficiency, that critics find most worrisome, since long-term, low-level exposure to antibiotics makes it easier for resistant bacteria to develop and grow. Research has shown that using antibiotics to promote growth does contribute to the contamination of flock and food products by Campylobacter, Salmonella, Enterococcus and Escherichia coli and other antibiotic resistant pathogens. And in a test last year by Consumer Reports, around half of chicken samples tested positive for at least one bacterium that is multidrug-resistant, meaning it can't be killed with some of the antibiotics, antifungal and other drugs we commonly use to combat such organisms.
The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association have all urged a ban on growth-promoting antibiotics. The FDA called on animal pharmaceutical producers in 2013 to voluntarily eliminate growth promotion antibiotics. But little has been done in practice to change regulations.
More change is coming because of consumers, who are clearly turned off by the idea of antibiotic resistant bacteria. A poll by Consumer Reports in 2012 showed that most Americans want meat raised without antibiotics to be sold at their local supermarkets. But just eliminating antibiotics from some products doesn't appear to be enough to reduce antibiotic-resistant bacteria: Industry practices may have to change as a whole. In one survey, for example, Consumer Reports found no difference in the total occurrence of bacteria between conventional brands and those labeled “no antibiotics” or “organic” -- meat raised without antibiotics was just as infected.
Voluntary measures like Tyson's leave open questions and loopholes. Namely, the company promised to phase out "human antibiotics," and it's still not clear exactly what that means. Even if the same antibiotic isn't used in humans and animals, using antibiotics in the same class may still spur development of cross-resistance, the NDRC points out.
And beyond the chicken industry, there are bigger challenges. America still faces the problem of overuse of antibiotics in humans—according to the CDC, about half of the antibiotics that doctors prescribe each year are given unnecessarily or used improperly—as well as in turkeys, beef and pork. And in a world where our agricultural industry is increasingly globalized, other countries' standards matter as well. Home to a massive pork industry, China uses about 10 times as much as antibiotics as the U.S. per capita, and about half of those antibiotics are consumed by people.
Tyson's announcement is a step toward protecting human antibiotics, to be sure. But while our chickens may be slightly less drugged, but they are nowhere near drug and bug-free.