I don’t think I’ve ever used a news-style headline for a blog entry before, but the headline for this entry isn’t actually news: The Food and Drug Administration announced its plans to phase out the use of “medically important” antibiotics — which is to say any antibiotics used to treat people — as growth promoters in livestock back in December of 2013.
But I just learned about it, and I try to keep up on these things, so I figured maybe you didn’t know about it either, unless you’re a regular reader of National Hog Farmer, one of Nation’s Restaurant News’ sister publications, which has covered it in detail.
Clearly I need to get out more, which I did this week, when I went to Maryland’s eastern shore for a chicken summit, a conference thrown by the National Chicken Council and US Poultry to acquaint those of us in the media with how mainstream chickens are hatched, raised, slaughtered and processed.
They weren’t showing us certified humane, free-range, pasture-raised, organic or any other kind of specially raised chicken. We were taken to facilities that raise chicken the way more than 80 percent of the chicken in this country is raised.
This is how they're raised:
Those are three-week old chickens, bopping around, wandering over to feeders that look like this:
The feed is mostly corn and soybean, with some vitamins added. They have continuous access to water, which they can get from little dispensers attached to those water pipes from which the feeder is suspended.
They were tranquil, pretty much staying put in their part of the barn. The particular chickens we visited are part of a group that are allowed to grow extra large — eight pounds or more — to be used mostly in foodservice to make things like boneless wings (which are made of breast meat cut in the shape of wings). They live for about 58 days, or a little over eight weeks. The average life of a chicken raised for meat is around seven weeks, although Cornish game hens are slaughtered at four weeks.
That’s another thing I learned: Cornish game hens are just young chickens.
One more thing I learned: Chickens raised for meat don’t have their beaks trimmed. That’s only done to egg-laying hens. Adult hens develop a serious “pecking order,” you see, and alpha hens tend to beat up on, and even eat, weaker hens.
The farmers told me that’s not a problem for meat chickens, who have constant access to food and are slaughtered at a young age. I asked the chicken farmers about beak trimming and they looked at me like I was stupid.
But the big news, to me at least, was the phasing out of many antibiotics as growth promoters, which will be accomplished by the end of 2016.
At the Chicken Summit I learned that antibiotics have been used as growth promoters in chicken since the 1950s, when farmers figured out, without really understanding why, that adding antibiotics to feed helped chickens grow faster.
Great! Except it’s not great, because using antibiotics can increase the presence of strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, which means that if those microbes make you sick it's very difficult to treat you. That’s a major public health concern, and livestock producers have been under pressure to stop using antibiotics for those purposes.
Restaurant chains large and larger have weighed in on this issue. Chipotle Mexican Grill has long said it doesn’t buy animals treated with antibiotics (or hormones, another issue I’ll touch on in a moment). Chick-fil-A said early last year that the chain would phase out purchase of chicken treated with antibiotics over the next five years.
McDonald's made a more measured statement last month, that I would argue is pretty disingenuous. The nation’s largest restaurant chain said it would stop selling chicken treated with antibiotics that are also used in humans, which is something that it will pretty much have to do by the end of 2016 anyway.
Now, both Chipotle and Chick-fil-A (and some smaller chains and many independent restaurants), have said that they won’t use chicken treated with any antibiotics, and that includes ionophores, a class of drugs with which livestock are treated to prevent intestinal parasites (and that also have antimicrobial qualities, so they classify as antibiotics). Ionophores aren’t used on humans, and so there’s no risk of creating antibiotic resistant microbes that would affect humans.
Incidentally, if animals get sick, they are generally treated with antibiotics, just as humans are, and then they’re sold through different channels to companies that haven’t said they won’t buy animals treated with antibiotics.
O.K. Now on to hormones.
CHICKENS ARE NEVER TREATED WITH GROWTH HORMONES. It’s illegal to do so. Ditto for pork and veal. Only beef and dairy cattle are treated with such hormones. A couple of hormones are approved for use in lamb, but last time I heard no lamb producers used them.
Which make signs like this bit of nonsense from Moe’s Southwest Grill that I photographed at a New York City bus stop misleading at best. It plays on the fears of consumers and further confuses people.
Also, growth hormones used to treat beef are out of their system by the time they’re slaughtered and there’s no reason at all to think they affect the people that eat the meat. But that’s the topic of a different blog entry, because CHICKENS ARE NEVER TREATED WITH GROWTH HORMONES.
Shame on you, Moe’s.