Tyson Foods says it wants to stop using human antibiotics in its U.S. chicken houses by September 2017 and that it will explore doing the same in its beef, pork and turkey operations.
The move by the Springfield, Arkansas-based protein giant comes as restaurants demand more natural product and amid concerns that widespread antibiotic use can lead to drug-resistant germs, according to The Associated Press.
Poultry farms have used human antibiotics to stave off disease and help the animals grow more quickly.
McDonald’s, for which Tyson is a major supplier, made a similar announcement in March. The fast-food giant said it wants suppliers to stop using human antibiotics in poultry within two years.
Panera and Chipotle already say their chicken is antibiotic-free. Other firms have announced phasing out or eliminating antibiotics, including poultry rival Perdue Farms, along with restaurant chain Chick-fil-A – all amid growing pressure from consumer groups and regulators, according to The AP.
“Antibiotic-resistant infections are a global health concern,” Tyson Chief Executive Donnie Smith said in a statement. “We’re confident our meat and poultry products are safe, but want to do our part to responsibly reduce human antibiotics on the farm so these medicines can continue working when they’re needed to treat illness.”
There are no broiler chicken farms in Kansas. However, Tyson has two packing plants that process beef, including one in Garden City, that would be affected if the company decided to implement the same policy on cattle.
Meanwhile, the company has a “prepared foods” facility in Hutchinson and South Hutchinson that employs 600, according to the company’s website.
Todd Domer, a spokesman with the Kansas Livestock Association, said the organization supports “responsible, judicious use of antimicrobials.”
“To date, there is no confirmed link between antimicrobial use in animals and antimicrobial resistance in humans. That said, we clearly recognize the need for effective treatment options in human medicine as well as veterinary medicine. Tyson’s goal is laudable. It is important their plan recognizes appropriate animal care and protecting animal well-being.”
Scott Beyer, a Kansas State University professor and poultry extension agent, said that for poultry growers, 70 percent of the cost of getting product ready for consumers is the feed cost. Putting an antibiotic additive to the feed helps producers save two or three percent on corn and soybeans.
Moreover, it could mean higher prices of McNuggets, or at the grocery, according to the Tribune News Service.
JPMorgan analyst Ken Goldman, who follows poultry processors including Tyson, said in March that the absence of antibiotics in chicken production was likely to drive higher production costs as well as slightly higher consumer demand for chicken overall, given the perception of better health.
In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued a voluntary order to livestock and poultry producers to limit their use of antibiotics to induce faster growth in their animals and to treat sick animals, reports the Tribune News Service. Farms consume about 80 percent of the nation’s antibiotic supply, resulting in the growth of drug-resistant superbugs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tyson’s Smith said the company had already taken steps over the years to reduce antibiotic use. According to the release, Tyson has reduced human antibiotics in its broiler flocks by more than 80 percent since 2011. In 2014, the company has eliminated the use of all antibiotics at its 35 broiler chicken hatcheries.
Smith stressed the company will not “jeopardize animal well-being” to reach its 2017 goal.
Tyson Foods is also forming working groups with independent farmers and others in the company’s beef, pork and turkey supply chains to discuss ways to reduce the use of human antibiotics on cattle, hog and turkey farms. Those groups will begin meeting this summer, according to the press release.