Thirty activist groups sent an open letter to Ron Foster, CEO, Foster Farms Inc., asking him to release information about antibiotic use in his company’s broiler operations. A recent outbreak of human Salmonellosis has been linked to ready-to-cook chicken products produced at three of Foster Farms’ facilities. The activists groups, which include the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Center for Food Safety, the Consumer’s Union, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, express concern over the impact that antibiotic use in food animals may be having on the development of antibiotic resistance and want data to try and link the two.

I question the value of antibiotic usage data from one broiler company in figuring out how that usage might have impacted the antibiotic resistance levels seen in bacteria isolated from Foster Farms’ chicken products. Asking the question about antibiotic usage at Foster is like doing a trial without a control. Suppose all of the birds received some sort of antibiotic over the course of their life and some resistant bacteria were isolated from the chicken products. This shows an association but not causality. If some of the birds processed at these facilities were treated with antibiotics and others were not, then we don’t really learn anything in this case either, because we don’t know which chickens were treated and which weren’t when they are in the package. Unfortunately, this letter won’t bring answers, just a grandstanding opportunity for the activists.

Luckily, regulators, researchers at the Universities of Minnesota and Georgia, and US poultry producers are working collaboratively to try and find answers. The National Antibiotic Resistance Monitoring Study (NARMS) is being extended in 2014 to include environmental sampling the week before marketing at broiler and turkey houses across the country. Participating producers also will submit information regarding antibiotic usage on the farms that are sampled.

All broiler and turkey integrators have been asked to volunteer for this pilot project so that a truly random sample of all the birds raised for slaughter in the US is obtained. The project was scheduled to begin this month. The data generated by this pilot study will have more value to researchers who are working to find where the resistant bacteria that are of human health concern originate and how people become exposed, than would any information that Foster Farms could share.

Everyone in the poultry industry wants to work toward continuous improvement in food safety. Each of the industry’s trade associations has established food safety as a priority and a non-competitive area where companies freely share ideas and trial results to work together to find solutions. The pilot study provides the means for data gathering and analysis that allows us to learn from the experience of the entire industry. Looking at just one integrator doesn’t really answer the central question about antibiotic use and the development of antibiotic resistance.