A few years ago, antibiotic-free poultry was considered a niche market for the type of consumer that shops at Whole Foods Market. Today, major fast food chains, mainstream retailers and even schools are offering chicken raised without antibiotics. This has brought the production of antibiotic-free poultry into the mainstream. The nutritional, health and husbandry requirements to produce chicken without antibiotics was the topic of a panel discussion sponsored by DuPont during IPPE 2015 in January.
Perdue has been one of the leading mainstream poultry producers embracing antibiotic-free production. Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of food safety and quality, talked about Perdue’s 12-year journey to antibiotic-free production and some of the lessons learned. He stressed it is a process.
“We’ve learned a lot of things,” said Stewart-Brown. “For example, you must have clean eggs in hatchery. We had to clean hatcheries better, had to step up sanitation and use a stricter approach as it related to personnel and procedures. I think the hatchery piece was the most significant to work through, but in the end all that cleaning and sanitation had positive side benefits in regards to chick quality.
Brown said the easiest part of the transition to producing chicken without antibiotics was to remove the growth promoters. “We took the antibiotics out of the feed and put in probiotics and prebiotics. Seven years ago, I was very skeptical, but today I believe probiotics and prebiotics have a place.”
Purdue also relies more on vaccination to maintain flock health than some of its competitors. Stewart-Brown says vaccination of the parent stock is very effective in producing healthy flocks.
Other speakers on the panel included Dr. Gregory Siragusa, senior principal scientist – microbiology, Danisco/DuPont; Dr. Steven Collett, clinical associate professor, University of Georgia; and Richard Kottmeyer, founder and managing director of Strategic. The discussion was moderated by Terrence O’Keefe, WATT’s content director-agribusiness.
Poultry gut health important
Dr. Siragusa echoed Stewart-Brown’s statements on performance without antibiotics. He said that studies have shown that overall performance does not have to suffer, but can even be better than flocks using growth promoters.
“There are a lot of variables involved and new systems have to be put into place,” said Siragusa. “You have to customize the program, plus the practices of the organization. If it is done right you can get better performance from antibiotic free flocks.”
Siragusa said the key to optimizing bird performance without growth promoters is to optimize the flora in the gut. “If you look back five years ago, we knew so little about what was making up that flora,” he said. Over the last two or three years, we’ve been able to figure that out.”
Dr. Collett agreed that managing poultry gut health is one of the key variables in raising broilers without antibiotics. “Seeding the gut with the correct flora is the most important part,” he said. “That can be done in the breeder stock in the hatchery.”
Collet said that, in the past, the industry has used antibiotics to control unfavorable bacteria in the gut, but the prebiotic has a very strong role in suppressing the unfavorable elements versus the favorable flora and can be as effective, with proper management.
Collet said vaccination for disease control is also a vital part of a successful antibiotic-free production system. “Coccidiosis control becomes very important in antibiotic free production,” he said. “You have to use coccidiosis vaccines.”
Consumers want chicken without antibiotics
Kottmeyer spoke on the consumer sentiment toward antibiotic free poultry. He said that the consumer is convinced antibiotics use in poultry is detrimental to human health because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association turned antibiotic use in animals into a human health issue.
“We now have a lot of people who know someone who has problems with antibiotic resistance,” said Kottmeyer. “It is a mainstream health issue. I think in a few years, one-third of chicken and turkey will be antibiotic free. The problem then is the other 66 percent of consumers will be resenting the fact their chicken isn’t antibiotic free.”