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The future of antibiotics in poultry feed

July 5, 2022
Broiler breeder

“Organic chicken,” “free-range chicken” and “antibiotic-free chicken” are now popular terms in the food supply chain. As consumers become more conscious about their health and animal welfare, the poultry industry has been working hard to address their concerns.

There has been a particularly strong drive for antibiotic-free (ABF) chicken. As a result, producers, retailers and restaurants have started to offer ABF choices. Governments have also created stricter regulations to prevent the misuse or overuse of antibiotics in animal feed.

Why has there been such a strong adjustment from various stakeholders globally around this issue? It all started with consumer concern about antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance is predicted to kill more people than cancer by 2050. This blog post reveals how reducing antibiotic usage in agriculture is being demanded by consumers, required by governments and led by big brands to help prevent this global health threat.

For poultry producers, ensuring good animal gut health is important for preventing the disease challenges that come with antibiotic reduction on the farm.

The push for antibiotic-free chicken has come from consumers due to health concerns.

The majority of antibiotic resistance has resulted from human misuse and the overuse or abuse of antibiotics. However, the public is worried about antibiotic use in agriculture for several reasons:

  • Antibiotics used in farming have also been used in human medicine.
  • Animals can pass resistance to humans through live contact and/or environmental contamination.
  • Meat, milk and eggs from contaminated animals (for example, poultry meat that contains antibiotic-resistant E. coli) can pass resistance to humans.

Why is antibiotic resistance scary?

Let’s rewind to 1945, when Sir Alexander Fleming won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of penicillin. In his acceptance speech, he warned even then that bacteria could become resistant to drugs. That means that some bacteria meant to be killed by antibiotics can adapt, survive and replicate. Sometimes, they pass this characteristic to other bacteria present in the gut. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is dangerous because it makes treatments fail when people or animals get sick.

Fast-forward nearly 80 years and AMR is one of the biggest threats in global health, food security and development today, according to World Health Organization (WHO). In 2019, almost 1.3 million deaths directly resulted from illnesses caused by drug-resistant bugs, according to a report released by the Lancet, a medical journal, on January 20, 2022. The large-scale use of antibiotics could lead to the death of up to 10 million people by 2050, meaning that one life will be taken every three seconds. In other words, superbugs could be a bigger killer than cancer, as projected in the chart below.

"antimicrobial resistance chart"

These alarming statistics reveal an urgent need for sweeping global changes to tackle antibiotic resistance on every front, from the healthcare industry to the agriculture sector.

Governments have introduced policies to prevent antibiotic resistance from agriculture.

Farmers began putting antibiotics in chicken feed in the 1950s after observing lower mortalities and faster body weight gain associated with their use. While the 1950s and the 1960s were the golden era of antibiotic discoveries, progress slowed down in the following decades, and new antibiotics are not currently being discovered. Meanwhile, bugs have evolved to resist many of the antibiotics available to both humans and animals. Consequently, regulatory boards have become stricter about antibiotics in animal feed.

Currently, the main uses of antibiotics in poultry productions are to treat disease, prevent disease or promote growth. The first use must exclude medically important antibiotics for humans in many countries now. The second and third uses are being increasingly restricted, as shown in the timeline below.

"antibiotic free timeline"

Denmark is a pioneer in this area and has established creative ways of following up on regulations. For example, Denmark’s government introduced a card system to name and shame drug abusers. This is done by listing the top veterinarians and farms by drug usage, then visiting those farms to ask why they are using so much.

With other countries following suit and creating their own rules, the focus on reducing antibiotic use in feed continues to grow globally.

Many producers, retailers and restaurant chains have developed ABF food products and menu items to respond to consumer demand.

The table below illustrates some examples from the U.S.

"antibiotic free companies"

A holistic approach to ensuring poultry performance and producer profitability with a reduced reliance on antibiotics.

Many producers have been successful in making the transition to antibiotic-free production or antibiotic reduction, despite the inevitable challenges. To prevent disease in poultry and promote growth for broiler chicken, it is important to make both the outside and internal environments as beneficial and comfortable as possible for the animal.

For the outside environment, it is helpful to have a nutritionist evaluate any environmental factors, such as drinking water and air quality. Biosecurity, farm management and vaccination programs also play an important role in keeping the flock safe. 

The internal environment is related to gut health, which is directly linked to immunity and growth performance. A complete gut health program like Seed, Feed, Weed (SFW) aids in reducing antibiotic usage in poultry by:

  1. Seeding the gut-favorable organisms (i.e., probiotics)
  2. Feeding them and maintaining a proper environment in which they can survive
  3. Weeding out the unfavorable organisms before they colonize the intestinal tract

This helps prevent pathogenic bacteria from binding to the epithelium and works to maintain microbial diversity, which improves the animal’s natural defenses.

In conclusion, with alarming predictions on what antibiotic resistance could do to people’s health and livelihood, the poultry industry is taking steps to reduce antibiotic use in animal feed. Many companies and farms have successfully switched to antibiotic-free production or antibiotic reduction in recent years. This shows that alternatives to antibiotics are available to help producers maintain their businesses. Additionally, a sustainable poultry production can also help companies reach a new market and gain a competitive advantage.


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