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Chicken producer removes all antibiotics from hatcheries

Special to the Courier

Pictured: Chicks raised by Perdue Foods will no longer receive antibiotics as a matter of course.

(Editor's note: As consumers become more concerned with the over-use of antibiotics in factory food production, it's nice to know at least one company listened and has taken steps to alleviate a regrettable situation. According to customer relations, Perdue chickens are available at H-E-B as "H-E-B Natural" and "Central Market Organic.")

Salisbury, Md. - Perdue Foods, the third largest chicken-producer in the United States, recently announced that it has removed all antibiotics from its chicken hatcheries - another step in setting a standard that defines the responsible use of antibiotics in poultry production.
In addition, Perdue has not used antibiotics for growth promotion in its chicken production since 2007. Moreover, the company utilizes an animal-only antibiotic only to control an intestinal parasite and to treat and control illness in sick flocks.
"By no longer using any antibiotics in our hatcheries or any human antibiotics in feed, 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 Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of Food Safety, Quality and Live Operations for Perdue Foods.
Eliminating use in the hatchery has taken five years to fully implement, and is the latest stage of a 12-year evolution in the company's approach to antibiotic use.
Listened to consumers
"We listened to our consumers and we are proud to have developed a responsible program that does not risk the medical effectiveness of antibiotics in human health, provides appropriate health care for animals and does not employ growth-promoting drugs," said Chairman Jim Perdue.
"While treating illness is a responsible part of animal care, we believe human-approved antibiotics should not be used to boost production or in place of responsible animal husbandry or hatchery management."
"This is not something that you simply turn a switch to implement," said Stewart-Brown. "Moving away from the conventional use of antibiotics in animal agriculture means more than taking human antibiotics out of your programs. You have to develop programs from breeder operations, through the hatchery and feed mill and onto the farm that are sustainable without that use. It takes a lot more effort with more stringent standards, but we believe this is what consumers expect from Perdue."
12-year journey
In response to growing consumer concern and the company's own questions about the practice, Perdue Foods started moving away from conventional antibiotic use in 2002.
"We recognized that the public was concerned about the potential impact of the use of these drugs on their ability to treat humans effectively," said Stewart-Brown. "We focused first on removing growth-promoting antibiotics."
By 2007, the company had successfully removed all human antibiotics from its feed. That same year, Perdue Foods launched the Harvestland® brand, its no-antibiotics-ever product line.
"That was a major learning experience for us," said Stewart-Brown. "No-antibiotics-ever was a very small part of the market, but it gave the opportunity to learn what it takes to successfully run such a program. And we took what we learned and applied them across our entire company."
Along the way, Perdue Foods was among the first to phase out the use of arsenic in chicken feed - well before its market withdrawal. "Again, we saw that consumers were becoming concerned about the practice," said Stewart-Brown. "But we found that, through improved flock health programs and housing environments, we are able to produce healthy chickens without it."
In 2011, Perdue Foods acquired Coleman Natural Foods, adding organic chicken and no-antibiotics-ever turkey, pork and beef. "As we expanded our brands and moved into other proteins, it was important to us that we continue to improve our practices, and not just get bigger," said Perdue.
The final step in Perdue's journey toward responsible antibiotics use was eliminating their use in the hatchery, a process that began in 2009 and culminated in the summer of 2014.
"Most hatcheries typically use small amounts of antibiotics when vaccinating the eggs," said Stewart-Brown. "The primary purpose is to prevent infection from entering through the vaccination site. In fact, this use is even allowed by the National Organic Program - though we don't employ it with our organic products. We invested in our hatcheries to create a clean environment and can now successfully vaccinate eggs without antibiotics."
Offering consumers choices
Through its roster of brands and products, Perdue Foods offers consumers choices, including no-antibiotics-ever and organic. "Our organic and no-antibiotics-ever products appeal to consumers looking for specific attributes," said Eric Christianson, senior vice president of marketing for Perdue Foods. "But, all of our consumers can trust that our responsible animal health program ensures a minimal, safe and responsible use of antibiotics."
Chickens raised for Perdue Foods outside the organic and no-antibiotics-ever programs are generally treated to prevent common illnesses using an animal-only antibiotic not used in human medicine.
Regardless of the program, should animals become ill - including organic and no-antibiotics-ever - they will be treated as medically appropriate as part of Perdue's animal welfare commitment. However, if antibiotics are used, they are not marketed as no-antibiotics-ever or organic.
"There is a misperception at times that organic and no-antibiotics-ever programs entail withholding antibiotic treatment," said Stewart-Brown. "Both the National Organic Program and responsibly written no-antibiotics-ever programs require the use of antibiotics when medically necessary.
"However," he added, "that philosophy does not justify the widespread use of human antibiotics in animal agriculture. We believe our less-than-five-percent use rate demonstrates a responsible use of human antibiotics, and responsible animal husbandry programs in which consumers can have confidence."
Perdue foods include the PERDUE®, HARVESTLAND® and COLEMAN NATURAL®, and COLEMAN ORGANIC® brands.
For more information, visit www.perduefarms.com.