Tyson Foods Inc., which is the country’s biggest poultry supplier,announced this week that it plans to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its chicken flocks by 2017.
The impending deadline is being described as “one of the most aggressive timelines yet set by an American poultry company.”
The decision, which was announced on Tuesday, comes in the wake ofMcDonald’s recent announcement that it plans to phase out antibiotic-treated chicken over the next two years. McDonald’s is one of Tyson’s biggest customers.
Tyson’s aggressive move away from human antibiotics is a big deal for the meat industry, according to nutrition experts and consumer advocates in the field. Since about one in five chickens sold in the United States are from Tyson, the new policy could have a big ripple effect at a time when American consumers are growing increasingly concerned about the public health risk posed by the overuse of antibiotics in their food.
The vast majority of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in livestock, rather than in people. Food companies rely on the drugs in order to spur animal growth and to stem the spread of illnesses among animals, particularly on factory farms that are often overcrowded with animals in close quarters. But there have been some consequences to this approach: The widespread use of antibiotics has allowed bacteria to mutate and become resistant to the drugs used to treat them, leading to the rise of so-called “superbugs.”
Now, more than half of the meat sold in the U.S. contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and there’s mounting evidence that superbugs in animals can have consequences for human health. Although federal health officials have repeatedly expressed concern about the overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released onlyvoluntary guidelines that don’t do enough to crack down on large companies who continue using too many drugs.
Nonetheless, it appears that American consumers have been able to exert some influence in this area. More people are seeking out antibiotic-free meat, and the majority of Americans say they’d be willing to pay a little more for meat that’s raised without the use of antibiotics. Experts say that’s helping to facilitate a larger market shift that’s outpacing the FDA’s guidelines.
“We are seeing companies come to the table because of public pressure in a way they haven’t before,” Susan Vaughn Grooters, a policy analyst for the health and animal wellness coalition Keep Antibiotics Working, told the Wall Street Journal last fall.
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