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Antibiotic-free poultry production: All you need to know

September 20, 2021
Broiler breeders

Antibiotic-free poultry production has been a hot topic in recent years. Many countries have banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed as growth promoters due to concerns about antimicrobial resistance. In other countries, antibiotics that are medically important for humans have been voluntarily or regulated to be removed or significantly reduced in poultry production. There are also places where veterinarians prescribe antibiotics, and sick poultry can still be treated if a veterinarian deems it necessary.

With the reduced use of antibiotics in poultry production, many countries have decided to allow the use of chemical and ionophore anticoccidials to help offset some of the common challenges that arise in poultry production. Chemical and ionophore anticoccidials help manage a common and costly parasitic disease in poultry, coccidiosis.

Some restaurants and retailers have chosen to only use antibiotic-free poultry (e.g., “raised without antibiotics,” “no antibiotics ever,” etc.), in which no antibiotics can be used during poultry production.

Whether antibiotics are reduced or eliminated in poultry production, producers who manage poultry in these systems share the major goals of:

1. Ensuring good intestinal health in poultry to optimize growth performance as well as prevent poultry diseases, such as necrotic enteritis and coccidia.

2. Producing safe, healthy food for the growing global population.

How are antibiotics used in global poultry production?

The three main programs regarding antibiotic use in global poultry production are:

1. “No antibiotics ever” or “raised without antibiotics”: Poultry that has never been fed any antibiotics (including ionophore anticoccidials). Products from these systems are clearly labeled to differentiate them from other production systems.

2. Reduced antibiotic use: Allows antibiotics not used in human medicine (e.g., chemical and ionophore anticoccidials), excluding medically important antibiotics. This type of production may label the meat in some countries, while it may be the standard production system in others. 

3. Antibiotics used as growth promoters (AGP): Some countries still use antibiotics at lower levels with the intent to support poultry growth. However, if producers from these countries are exporting to markets with reduced antibiotic use/“no antibiotics ever” production policies, then they must meet those specific criteria.

Why is antibiotic-free poultry production becoming increasingly popular?

Consumer concerns about antibiotic resistance:

Decades after the invention of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928, antimicrobials came into wide use in the global poultry industry in the 1940s to treat parasitic diseases and specific bacterial infections, as well as to improve growth and efficiency.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), antibiotic resistance occurs naturally, but misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals accelerates the process.

Antimicrobial resistance can impact both animals as well as humans. Antimicrobial resistance (to anticoccidials and antibiotics) can be found in the poultry flock and create issues when managing or treating an illness within the flock. There is still a debate as to whether antibiotic resistance in agriculture or companion animals strongly influences antibiotic resistance in humans. 

There is an acknowledgment that human medicine is the primary driver of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. However, “no antibiotics ever” poultry production in many developed countries has become increasingly popular due to a consumer perception that antibiotic-free produced poultry is superior to conventionally raised poultry, even if that poultry is raised with reduced antibiotic use.

Recent regulations to ensure human safety:

From a regulatory standpoint, many countries across the globe have introduced policies regarding AGP due to antimicrobial resistance concerns.

"antibiotics in poultry feed timeline"

Some countries brought in overall regulatory change for all poultry production practices; several have made some regulatory changes, while in other countries, the industry voluntarily made changes. Some retailers and restaurant chains around the globe have chosen to produce or purchase poultry meat raised with reduced or no use of antibiotics. Overall, these examples show that the poultry industry continues to do what is needed to meet consumer demands. 

What are common challenges of antibiotic-reduced or antibiotic-free poultry production?

Common challenges that poultry producers face when switching to antibiotic-free are poor gut health, reduced bird immunity and a decrease in growth performance.

1. Gut health

One of the producers’ top concerns about not using AGP is leaving the birds more susceptible to gut health issues. A healthy gut is more than just the absence of clinical diseases; it is about sustainably producing birds to reach their full genetic potential.

Below is an infographic of a healthy gut that efficiently absorbs nutrients (top image) compared to an unhealthy gut (bottom two images).

"gut health in poultry villi"

2. Poultry immunity and growth performance

Another challenge when considering switching from traditional to antibiotic-free poultry production is poultry diseases, especially enteric diseases such as coccidiosis and necrotic enteritis (NE), caused by species of Eimeria and Clostridium perfringens, respectively. Consideration must also go to viral challenges, which may lead to secondary bacterial issues that take advantage of the weakened immune system. 

In addition to disease, overall poultry health, growth and immune function can be negatively impacted by other stressors, such as feed, water, environmental and behavioral. These stressors, if significant, can themselves create issues. But problems can also develop if there are many small stressors, especially if these are combined with a low, moderate, or high disease challenge.

Depending on the challenge levels, the bird’s natural immunity will not be enough to manage the threat. Because of this, it is always better to work on a preventative rather than reactive basis. Prevention must be a holistic approach that considers feed, water, environment and bird management, as well as an implementable feed additive program. Typically, in antibiotic-reduced or antibiotic-free poultry production programs, a combination of non-antibiotic additives are included in the feed or water as alternatives to antibiotics.

Examples of alternatives to antibiotics: non-antibiotic feed additives

  • Probiotics (“direct-fed microbials,” “viable microbial products”): Live microbial supplements with defined microorganisms that beneficially affect the host by improving its intestinal microbial balance.  
  • Enzymes: Substances produced by a living organism that help convert a less digestible component of feed (e.g., sugar, fiber, protein) into a more easily absorbed form for animals to utilize.
  • Prebiotics: “A selectively fermented ingredient that results in specific changes in the composition and/or activity of the gastrointestinal microbiota, thus conferring benefit(s) upon host health” (ISAPP, 2008). 
  • Yeasts: There are 1,500 different yeast species, with a few being used as agriculture feed additives. Saccharomyces cerevisiae can be used in many different forms, including a whole live yeast, the outer yeast cell wall, the inner yeast cell wall and the yeast extract.
  • Mannan Rich Fraction (MRF): A second-generation form derived from nutrigenomics analysis of Saccharomyces cerevisiae mannan oligosaccharides. Research has demonstrated that MRF can support immune defense, gut microbial health, gut function and development.
  • Organic acids: Acids with weak acidic properties that do not separate completely in the presence of water. Some examples of organic acids are citric acid, short-chain fatty acids (e.g., acetic, butyric acid) and medium-chain fatty acids (e.g., lauric, caproic acid). Each type of organic acid has unique properties and can be used for different purposes in poultry production.
  • Inorganic acids: Mineral acids that contain no carbon atoms and break down completely in the presence of water (e.g., phosphoric acid). Often used to make the pH of water or feed more acidic quickly.
  • Phytobiotics: Plant compounds and extracts from herbs and spices with multiple benefits, including antimicrobial, anticoccidial and immune support.
  • Postbiotics: Soluble, non-viable metabolites produced by a bacterial or probiotic metabolic process that can reduce the gut pH, prohibit opportunistic pathogen proliferation and enhance host health (Aguilar-Toalá et al., 2018).

How can producers address the challenges of antibiotic-reduced or antibiotic-free poultry production?

Reducing antibiotic use with the Seed, Feed, Weed concept

Imagine sowing seeds of crops you want to grow, fertilizing the crops for optimal growth and weeding out other plants that may prevent your crop from growing optimally.

Applying this concept to poultry, the Alltech Seed, Feed, Weed (SFW) program aids in reducing antibiotic usage by:

  • Seeding the gut with favorable organisms for improved performance in young poultry. It is crucial to first seed the intestine with the correct bacteria as soon as possible after hatch.
  • Feeding a favorable environment to provide a competitive advantage to favorable bacteria, which are tolerant to acidic environments, unlike most pathogens. Once a beneficial microflora community and intestinal ecology are established, the villi will flourish. The healthier the villi a bird has, the more efficiently nutrients are absorbed, which leads to a better feed conversion rate.
  • Weeding out unfavorable bacteria by selective exclusion. The gut can also contain harmful pathogenic microbes, which can damage the villi. It is necessary to weed them out before they can attach to the gut lining and replicate enough to cause disease. 

"poultry gut health solution"

While antibiotics still have a crucial role in disease outbreak incidences, effective gut health management using the SFW program has been shown to reduce the need for antibiotic use in many commercial flocks, as well as enhance performance across several measures. Ultimately, the SFW program helps ensure poultry producers achieve more efficient, profitable and sustainable production.

As some producers have demonstrated, focusing on gut health is the foundation for performance and profitability in poultry production.

Paired with effective biosecurity, bird, water and farm management, the Alltech SFW solution helps producers get one step further on the path of improved performance and reduced antibiotic use.

References are available upon request.


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