Poultry antibiotic alternatives: Expectation vs. reality

The drive toward new additives for use in antibiotic-free poultry production may be causing confusion.

The Gartner hype cycle, a tool for thinking about the development and adoption of technologies by end users, is a way to put product development efforts into focus. (Wikipedia)
The Gartner hype cycle, a tool for thinking about the development and adoption of technologies by end users, is a way to put product development efforts into focus. (Wikipedia)

With recent reports from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicating continued sharp declines in the use of antibiotics in U.S. livestock production, and in poultry production specifically, and with the continued industry march toward antibiotic-free poultry production, there is no doubt that antibiotic-free poultry production is a fact of life. 

Additionally, if the International Production and Processing Expo is freshly on your mind this month, it sometimes seems that marketers would have us believe success is all about the additives. 

The deluge of antibiotic alternative options should convince you that this is no longer a niche market, but an intensely competitive core business for many companies. 

Given the sheer volume of the marketing messages and the often-conflicting science presented about these antibiotic alternatives, it’s easy to feel like we are riding the “hype cycle” on a crazy journey, making it almost impossible to separate the hype of expectations from the actual advancements in alternatives to antibiotic technologies. 

Hype of inflated expectations or trough of disillusionment?

The Gartner hype cycle describes the development and adoption of technologies over time, and is a useful way to think about the technologies applied in our own field. 

One example of the hype of inflated expectations is the  use of the term “microbiome,” but it is only one example of many. It has suddenly become the marketing word for antibiotic alternatives, being applied to enzymes, probiotics and prebiotics, and many other nutritional additives. 

As a scientific discipline, investigations into the microbiome have a tremendous amount of promise in the creation of next-generation antibiotic alternatives. But as a marketing term, "microbiome" is at the peak of inflated expectations, and caution is warranted. 

Be careful to separate out those that are marketing the “microbiome” vs. those that are making real progress toward next-generation products. 

Inevitably, this term, like many others before it, will slide into the trough and may even be forgotten, but the technologies themselves will remain and will evolve. 

Companies offering antibiotic alternative technologies climb the slope of enlightenment when next-generation products and services are created around those technologies, when time is invested in diagnosing and understanding specific challenges first and then adapting to those specifically. 

A great example of this is the evolution of phytase as a nutritional tool. Phytase has moved from a mandated nutrition addition to poultry feeds in the U.S. in the 1990s to solve all of poultry’s environmental problems – the very peak of inflated expectations – to the use of fourth-generation phytases we see today with accompanying nutritional, analytical and application services putting us firmly on the plateau of productivity. There are hints at next-generation products and services directly linked to antibiotic-alternative feed technologies, but we still have a long way to go to match the kinds of offerings we see for more purely nutritional technologies.

The reality: Climbing the slope

The reality is that antibiotic-free poultry production is climbing the slope toward the plateau of productivity, but for much more complex reasons than the antibiotic alternative additive programs used. 

Poultry industry benchmarking has shown us that the U.S. industry has passed through the transition to antibiotic-free and is back on the steady track of efficiency improvements and increased harvest weights. 

Most of this progress has been made through better genetics, better husbandry, better health practices, and better biosecurity -- not through nutritional feed additives alone. 

This is a testament to the speed at which the poultry industry can adapt across a broad set of skills, and a huge opportunity for antibiotic-alternative feed additive technologies and suppliers to continue to improve and evolve in order to meet the inevitable needs of the future. 


Are probiotics in poultry production still effective?


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