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Antibiotic-Free Chicken is the Next Big Thing

By Anya Vanecek
Public Health Digital Campaigner

As the public speaks out against antibiotics overuse in agriculture, the dominoes are falling. On Monday, Pilgrim’s Pride joined Tyson, the industry leader, and Perdue, by committing to raise 25 percent of its birds without antibiotics by the end of 2018. Pilgrim’s is the second-largest U.S. chicken producer. Their move marks what The Wall St Journal called “one of the most aggressive timetables for reducing antibiotics use laid out by a U.S. poultry company.” While they may not be going completely antibiotic-free, this move will continue to push the industry towards better practices overall.

It’s not just the chicken producers that are changing. Chicken raised without antibiotics seems to be the trend this spring. More and more, antibiotic-free chicken could finally be the new way we do chicken in the United States.

Earlier this year, we helped push McDonald’s to make a similar commitment, thanks to people like our members adding their voice to a powerful call. After over 30,000 people asked the mega-chain to go antibiotic-free, McDonald’s announced that its 14,350 restaurants nation-wide would sell only chicken raised without medically-important antibiotics by 2015. Panera purchases 28 million pounds of antibiotic-free chicken annually for its 1,800 locations in the United States and Canada. Alongside local restaurants and the likes of Chipotle, Chick-fil-a, and others, these small steps are quickly becoming a movement—one we’re thrilled to be a part of!

The more antibiotic-free poultry sales increase, the more power we have to change the business. Consumer demand and activism tipping a small market segment into a significant business has happened before, with the organic and anti-GMO movements. Sales of antibiotic-free chicken were up 34 percent in 2013 and a Consumer Reports study suggest the potential for much higher growth. In their poll, a high majority of people said they’d pay more for meat raised without antibiotics—as much as a dollar per pound.

“We’re seeing quite a big growth in antibiotic-free product,” Wesley Batista, CEO of JBS S.A., a major stakeholder in Pilgrim’s Pride, told The Wall Street Journal. “As consumers and as the population is looking more for that, the industry needs to follow.”

So, a new antibiotic-free status quo in big poultry is welcome news, but it’s also necessary. Journalist Will Blackmore nailed it in his article for takepart.com when he said that “antibiotic-free meat needs to go big to have a positive effect on public health.”

Decades of concern over the industry’s standard practice of feeding livestock and poultry regular low doses of antibiotics have lead up to this moment, and the agriculture industry is still buying more human medicines than ever before. According to the FDA, sales of medically important drugs increased 20 percent between 2009 and 2013. Although agricultural uses aren’t the only source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or catalyst for “the end of the antibiotic era,” it’s a major—and continuing--part of the problem.

Drug-resistant bacterial infections kill 23,000 people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Without dramatic action to reduce inappropriate use of antibiotics, this is going to get much worse.

We’re glad that the top three chicken producers in the country are moving to reduce or remove antibiotics use from their farms, but we aren’t done yet.

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