Some farmers are testing oregano as a possible alternative to antibiotics as a way to fight off bacterial diseases, catering to a growing consumer base looking for antibiotic-free meat in their grocery aisles.

Right now, antibiotic-free meat sales are a small fraction of the overall meat market, but it is a growing segment, according to data. Sales in the U.S. of organic meat, poultry and fish, which by law must be raised without antibiotics, came to $538 million in 2011, according to the Organic Trade Association. Some retailers are beginning to say that they can't gain access to enough antibiotic-free meat for their shelves.

Scott Sechler, the owner of chicken producer Bell & Evans, has been feeding his chickens a special diet laced with oregano oil on and off for the last three years. The company has been antibiotics-free for years, but no alternatives have worked as well as the oregano, according to Sechler, who uses a product called By-O-Reg Plus made by Dutch company Ropapharm International.

Few tests have been done on oregano as an antibiotics substitute. A test of oregano oil on four small farms in Maine found it was effective in controlling the parasites and worms that afflict goats and sheep. Dr. Harry G. Preuss, a professor of physiology and biology at the Georgetown University Medical Center, studied the effectiveness of oregano oil on 18 mice infected with staph bacteria. The results were promising, but an application for more funding to conduct larger-scale testing has so far been unsuccessful.

Advertisement

Country View Family Farms, a Pennsylvania-based pig producer, is testing oregano oil on its stock after hearing about Bell & Evans' success. Since mid-2012, 5,000 pigs have eaten feed laced with By-O-Reg after being weaned from their mothers. “The preliminary results are encouraging, but we need to be sure it’s giving us the results we need to give us the confidence to start using it more broadly,” said owner Bob Ruth. 

But both companies say the oil isn't the only measure in place to protect against bacterial infection. “You can’t just replace antibiotics with oregano oil and expect it to work,” said Sechler. Bell & Evans and Country View both maintain strict sanitary practices, provide good ventilation and light for their animals, and make sure water lines are always clean.