As scrutiny of antimicrobial use increases around the world, is it possible the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture will come to an end in the near future?

That’s one question a panel of poultry industry experts fielded at the Poultry Science Association’s annual meeting in New Orleans. During a July 12 symposium on antibiotic use, sponsored by Alltech, Dr. Randolph Mitchell, vice president of technical services at Perdue Farms Inc.; Dr. G. Donald Ritter, director of health services at Mountaire Farms Inc.; and Dr. David Wicker, vice president of live operations, at Fieldale Farms Corp., shared their attitudes toward antibiotic use and how things might change in the future.

A member of the audience asked the panel if they thought the industry was at a “tipping point” on antibiotic use.

Ritter, of Millsboro, Delaware-based Mountaire – the seventh-largest U.S. broiler company, according to WATT Global Media – said he thinks the industry is on the edge of a tipping point. He referenced the myriad restaurant chains, particularly large quick-service restaurants, making commitments to only serve chicken raised without antibiotics. He said a large segment of poultry buyers, foodservice distributors and wholesalers who purchase chicken in large volumes for food service outlets that are less in the public eye aren’t demanding antibiotic-free products yet.

“If it does, then we’re done,” Ritter said. “If foodservice wants (a no-antibiotics-ever) product, then all of us are going to make it (and) the price premium is going to crash when the volume goes up.”

He said the industry is in a live-and-let-live mode, where producers with robust conventional operations and those with mature antibiotic-free operations are coexisting thanks to varied demand and their ability to give consumers a choice between conventionally raised and antibiotic-free poultry. If everyone, large and small, is forced to go antibiotic free because it’s the prevailing consumer demand – like the cage-free situation in the layer industry – it will disrupt the market.

“I hope we can keep it out of (generic) food service,” Ritter said. “I’m hopeful, but in the next 12 months, we'll see. I really think it’s that close.”     

High cost of ABF production for producers, consumers

Other speakers echoed the message that antibiotic-free production is going to be more expensive because of performance issues with the animals and the steep learning curve for farmers. Wicker said Fieldale was a pioneer in antibiotic-free production and, because of that, the company has fielded requests for other specialty practices in the past. He said he never says something is impossible, but he always tells potential customers that there will be a price premium associated with the practice.

Mitchell, with Salisbury, Maryland-based Perdue – the fourth-largest broiler company, said it’s important that companies keep providing consumers with a choice. Otherwise, they will force consumers who may not be able to pay a premium price for chicken to make tough choices. He said he thinks that’s unethical.

Ritter said he thinks “no antibiotics ever,” or totally removing antibiotics from poultry production, is an unrealistic expectation for the poultry industry because, in large-scale operations, birds are going to get sick and they will need to receive treatment. He said the industry needs to communicate with consumers to find a middle ground that works for both sides.


Poultry industry must speak up, reach out to consumers

On the topic of communication, Wicker with Baldwin, Georgia-based Fieldale, said the industry must take action and influence the conversation surrounding antibiotic-free and other types of food. Consumers are going online for information and what they are finding is not always truthful.

The poultry industry, he said, is preaching to the choir about why those products will be costly to supply and perhaps no better than conventionally raised products. He commended the efforts by the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association and the rest of the industry to reach out to consumers, but said the outreach efforts aren’t doing enough to get their side of the issue out to the average consumer.

“It doesn’t do us any good to talk among ourselves,” Wicker said.

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