Perdue Foods to scale back use of antibiotics

Perdue Foods said Wednesday that it has removed all antibiotics from its chicken hatcheries, lowering exposure rates for the poultry giant’s birds to below 5 percent. 

The action is part of a 12-year plan by the company to reduce the use of antibiotics to grow its chickens, and it comes as the Food and Drug Administration moves to largely end the practice. 

“We’ve reached the point where 95 percent of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics, and the remainder receive them only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian,” said Bruce Stewart-Brown, a senior vice president at Perdue. 

The company still uses an “animal-only” antibiotic to combat a specific intestinal parasite. 

Jim Perdue, chairman of parent company Perdue Farms, said the initiative stems from growing consumer concerns about the use of antibiotics and growing preferences for organic and antibiotic-free chicken.

Experts have warned for years that too much exposure to the drugs can lead to the emergence of drug-resistant "superbugs" that are blamed for thousands of deaths every year. 

In December, the FDA unveiled a plan to phase out the use of antimicrobials for the purpose of fattening chickens, pigs or other animals destined for dinner plates. 

The action is aimed at “medically important antimicrobials,” those used in penicillin, tetracycline or other antibiotics used to treat human infections. 

Stewart-Brown stressed that Perdue’s actions go beyond any regulatory proposal now on the table and said they show that the industry can evolve on its own. 

“We believe you don’t need to regulate us to move on,” he said. “We’d like people to understand that.”

Perdue’s announcement drew praise Wednesday from public interest advocates, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pew Charitable Trust's Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. 

The group Keep Antibiotics Working (KAW) called the action an important milestone in protecting public health. 

“Limiting the use of medically important antibiotics to disease treatment and control in sick flocks is the policy that KAW has long recommended,” the group said in a statement. “The action in the hatcheries is particularly important as antibiotic use there has been clearly linked to resistance in the treated birds and to resistance in sick humans.”

Jonathan Kaplan, director of the Food and Agriculture Program at NRDC, described Perdue’s initiative a potential turning point in the use of antibiotics in chicken.

“My sense is, this now sets the bar for the rest of the poultry industry,” he said.

This story was updated with additional information at 1:48 p.m.