“It doesn’t make logical sense to give poultry hormones; it would cost a lot of money, and nobody wants to go to jail over raising chickens.” – Dr. Kate BargerMedia members attending the 2015 Chicken Media Summit heard four poultry experts bust six prevalent myths about poultry production.
Media in attendance at the event, sponsored by the National Chicken Council and U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, included print, broadcast and digital, ranging from reporters from Bloomberg Business Media and the Wall Street Journal to popular bloggers about food.
MYTH 1: Chickens are all drugged up.
This may be the greatest myth about poultry, according to the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association’s John Glisson, and it is wrong on several counts. He provided myth-busting facts about each misunderstanding of antibiotic use in poultry.
John Glisson, vice president of research, U.S. Poultry & Egg Association
“The poultry company veterinarian is the one who makes the decisions about how to treat the birds, the use of antibiotics, what kind and for how long.” – Dr. John Glisson
>> It is a myth to say that chickens are fed antibiotics just to make them grow faster.
It is misleading to call antibiotics “growth promoters,” something which fosters misunderstanding of how they work in poultry, Dr. Glisson explained. The role of antibiotics – their mode of action – is to keep poultry healthy.
“A lot of the so-called growth-promoting antibiotics on the market today were licensed by FDA in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and nobody knew how they worked. The only thing that could be measured is they made the chickens grow faster, and they did. They still do.
“Now we know how the antibiotics work. The way that antibiotics make chickens grow faster is that they prevent diseases of the intestinal tract, bacterial diseases. But the name has stayed around: growth promoters. That’s not the reason that they’re fed to chickens, but it is one of the results; it [protects chickens from infection and keeps them healthy which] makes them grow faster,” he said.
>> It is a myth to say that chickens are fed huge quantities of antibiotics and that this is fueling the increase in antibiotic resistance in human pathogens.
The often-cited statistic that 80 percent of the antibiotics used are in livestock and poultry can be misleading, Glisson said. That percentage is based on sales and overlooks the number of animals to which the antibiotics are administered. Food-production animals greatly outnumber people, so the usage of antibiotics in animals can be expected to be of a greater total volume.
“The other thing to remember is that at least 40 percent, maybe higher, of the antibiotics used in chickens are not used in humans. Use of these antibiotics in chickens has no effect on antibiotic resistance that we see in human pathogens,” he said.
While most poultry companies are already compliant with new federal guidelines on antibiotic usage in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Veterinary Feed Directive, the guidance in the directive becomes mandatory next year.
>> It is a myth to say that farmers give antibiotics to their flocks with no oversight.
“I see this myth repeated in stories in the press quite often,” Glisson said, “that farmers are indiscriminately using antibiotics. That’s not even possible, because the farmers don't even have the antibiotics.
“Farmers don’t own the chickens, and they don’t make decisions about feeds and medications given to the flocks. The chickens are owned by a company, and the company makes the decision about whether antibiotics will be used in the flocks.
“The poultry company veterinarian is the one who makes the decisions about how to treat the birds, the use of antibiotics, what kind, and for how long,” Glisson said.
MYTH 2: Poultry litter is a waste product, and poultry farms are a major source of pollution.
“Poultry litter is not a waste product,” said Jennifer Rhodes. “The manure that comes out of our chicken houses is locally produced, organic fertilizer. People forget that organic farmers can use it to grow their crops. We use it on our farm to grow our corn. It is certainly not a waste of a valuable resource.”
Jennifer Rhodes, extension educator for Agricultural and Natural Resources, University of Maryland Extension, Queen Anne’s County
Rhodes grows 80,000 broilers per flock, or half-a-million birds per year, which generates about 543 tons of manure. Not all of that manure, however, leaves the Rhodes farm every year. A complete clean-out of all of the litter in her poultry houses is performed only every five years. In the intervening years, only the litter in the center of the house is removed, which amounts to around 200 tons.
“We have several thousand acres that we farm, so we’re able to utilize that litter. We’re only using one to two, maybe three tons of manure per acre on our crops.”
Rhodes said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) greatly overestimates the amount of manure being land applied in the Chesapeake Bay watershed every year. The EPA’s estimates assume that all the manure is land applied every year.
What’s more, the manure that is moved off farms on Delmarva is being well-managed so as to avoid over-application in crop fields.
“In Somerset County, for example, we figure maybe 25 percent to 30 percent of manure is going to have to be moved elsewhere. The Maryland Department of Agriculture works with integrators, and there's a manure transportation program,” she said.
“The manure that comes out of our chicken houses is locally-produced organic fertilizer. We use it on our farm to grow our corn. It is certainly not a waste of a valuable resource.” – Jenny Rhodes
MYTH 3: Chickens are so huge and grow so fast they can barely stand up.
“A picture’s worth a thousand words,” said Dr. Kate Barger of Cobb-Vantress as she showed two photos – one of a 1957 broiler and the other from a 2012 genetic line.
Kate Barger, director of World Animal Welfare, Cobb‑Vantress
“The first thing that most people notice is the difference in the girth or the width on the breast of the two birds,” she said, noting that the modern broiler produces much more meat. “But I also want to draw your attention to the size of the feet of these birds and the thickness of the legs,” she said, with the modern broiler’s legs and feet being significantly more robust to support the added weight.
“In selecting for traits specifically related to animal wellbeing or animal welfare, somebody is literally picking up the birds and physically examining them for these traits. It is something that happens every single day on our pedigree farms.”
Technology similar to an x‑ray is used to examine the formation of the tibia of the bird and asses the structural integrity and remove any birds that might have difficulty in walking later on due to a defect in their bone growth.
Barger continued: “While the birds are bigger, we want them to be able to stand and walk. This type of technology and this type of selection allows us to do that so that those broilers can have a good life.
“We use technology that allows us to examine and select for cardiovascular fitness. This is similar to what you might find at the hospital or the doctor’s office. It measures the pulse rate and the oxygen saturation of the birds.”
MYTH 4: Chickens are given hormones to make them grow rapidly to large sizes.
No hormones are added or administered to poultry, Dr. Barger said. The addition of hormones is prohibited by government regulation, and poultry producers do not use any hormones.
“First, added hormones are illegal,” she explained.” Secondly, I don't know what would happen if you actually did put hormones in a chicken. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense. Yesterday, we saw a house with 20,000 chickens in it. You’d have to pick up each one of those chickens, twice a day, to inject each one to make them grow.
“Not only would the process injecting hormones in poultry represent added cost, anytime you pick up a chicken,” she added, “it’s a potentially stressful moment for the bird and would likely hurt flock performance.
“As an industry, we want to do things the right way and we want to make progress the right way. That means being in compliance with government regulations and not doing things that are illegal. It doesn't make logical sense to give poultry hormones; it would cost a lot of money, and nobody wants to go to jail over raising chickens,” she said.
MYTH 5: Improvements in the growth, livability and health of chicken are solely the result of genetics.
“Genetics is not the end‑all savior for the poultry industry,” said Dr. Barger. “The progress being achieved in the growth, livability and health of poultry is due to a combination of genetics, management, nutrition and the environment in which the birds are grown.
“These improvements include the contribution of the farmers who care for the birds on a daily basis making sure the environmental control and management of costs every single day, 24 hours a day, is optimal. That's going to allow them to have better efficiency and precision in growth as well as to achieve those performance indicators like feed conversion and lower mortality.
“It is worth noting that currently there is no genetic modification or genetic engineering in broiler genetics. The progress in growth, livability and health is being achieved with traditional genetic selection. We use molecular genetics to better understand the DNA of the birds than was possible in the past, but we’re not modifying the DNA or the genetic components of those birds,” she added.
MYTH 6: Everything the poultry industry does is done the right way.
It would be a myth to say that the poultry industry does everything perfectly, said Christine Daugherty of Tyson Foods, because it is constantly evolving and improving its poultry production practices and execution.
Christine Daugherty, vice president of sustainable food production, Tyson Foods
“The concept that the poultry industry is going to just ramrod things through and not take into consideration innovative new technologies, new ways to do things, continuous improvement, I believe, is clearly a myth and should be busted,” she said.
Not only are farmers continually applying new technologies and management techniques on their farms, leading poultry integrators such as Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Foster Farms and Sanderson Farms, have very large research programs that are looking at better ways to address food safety, the wellbeing of poultry and flock management. They also work on finding better ways to address these things through research and cooperation with trade associations such as U.S. Poultry and Egg Association and the National Chicken Council, as well as government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration.”
“The poultry industry wants to get better and improve the way it operates,” Daugherty said, noting that the biggest poultry industry improvements are ahead in the future.
“Do we have ways to improve? You bet. But I think the poultry industry in itself in conjunction with our industry partners, our universities, our folks like you, our farmers, we’re moving forward.”
“The concept that the poultry industry is going to not take into consideration innovative new technologies, new ways to do things, continuous improvement, is clearly a myth and should be busted.” – Dr. Christine Daugherty
The second Chicken Media Summit, “Chicken: Farm to Forklift,” provided media members the opportunity to tour a poultry farm, hatchery, processing plant, and research and development facility and question poultry industry leaders.