On chickens and antibiotics

Why We Can’t See Inside Poultry Production, and What Might Change if We Could,” by Maryn McKenna and posted on Wired, is depressingly unsurprising to me, but worth reading.

In the past months, there have been several troubling research reports, from different parts of the world, exploring aspects of the same problem: Multi-drug resistant bacteria are present in chicken, apparently because of the use of antibiotics in poultry production, and are passing to people who work with, prepare or eat chicken, at some risk to their health.

The author then cites six recent studies from all over the world backing this up. It’s more than a little terrifying. The problem is more or less created by a serious lack of transparency in commercial chicken farming. Another article cited here, an op-ed titled “Why We Haven’t Seen Inside a Broiler Chicken Factory Farm in a Decade,” says:

A full 25,000 individual animals defecate in the same enclosed space for 45 days. They get a lot bigger, rapidly growing from the size of your fist to the size of a soccer ball in that short period. They crowd that space as they grow, with each individual only having space equivalent to less than a piece of 8”x11” paper. It is a sea of chickens from wall to wall, sitting in their own feces, struggling to move, in large part because of their genetics. The modern broiler chicken is unnaturally large and has been bred to grow at a fast rate. This selective breeding produces as side effects serious welfare consequences including leg disorders: skeletal, developmental and degenerative diseases, heart and lung problems, breathing difficulty, and premature death.


Our three-week-old chickens moved to pasture

Our three-week-old chickens moved to pasture

We have made directly opposite choices in every respect. We generally run our chickens at 60-75 birds in a 10×12 chicken tractor, which is moved daily to fresh grass and has mesh sides so they get fresh air and sunshine. We choose a breed that doesn’t grow as quickly and that we’re happy to spend time with. We feed Organic grain and the pasture is untreated (though not certified Organic).

But — or maybe “and” — we medicate them when they need it.

In four years, and around 1000 broiler chickens and turkeys, we’ve only had to give antibiotics once, when the alternative was potentially losing a whole batch of 60 chicks. We didn’t love doing it, but we were really glad that we had the option. The chicks were all healthy within a few days and we didn’t see any further problems.

The other key aspect of this, to us, was customer communication. We made sure everyone was informed about the antibiotic delivery. Although it happened very early in the chicks’ lives and presented no harm to the consumers of the meat (at least according to the pharmaceutical manufacturer), we let customers know we’d cancel their pre-orders or honor them later in the season if they wanted to opt out of the medicated batch.

We weren’t perfect; in the future I would try to get an official diagnosis before medicating, if time permits. (It didn’t in the previous case.) I would also plan to remove from rotation the pasture the chicks were on when medicated, and let it rest for … a while. Another time, we gave baby vitamins (the kind for baby humans) to a flock of young turkeys to treat a riboflavin deficiency that was causing paralysis and death, and completely forgot to mention it to customers. (Oooops. They were human-grade vitamins, though, so everything should be fine.)

We’ve been fortunate to have no serious health issues with our birds. A lot of that has to do with the way we raise them, but we’ve also been lucky. We feel that medicating sick animals can be the correct thing to do from an animal welfare standpoint*, but that relies on the medication still being effective when it’s time to deliver it.

Blanket applications of antibiotics, as in the commercial chicken houses, are a crutch that allows the producers to raise the animals in unhealthy conditions, which then require more antibiotics, setting up a sad, scary vicious circle. We’re committed to finding a better way.

Whew. On a lighter note, here’s another post from the same author about a Georgia initiative by chefs to support small-scale chicken farming by promoting the birds’ quality and flavor, as a way to “advocate for change in chicken raising.” Yum!

And I’m off to take a chicken out of the freezer for dinner tomorrow …

* We’re not certified Organic (though our purchased feed is) and we’re largely unfamiliar with the regulations simply because we’re so small that it wouldn’t be cost-effective even a little. The question of being able to deliver medication when needed would be a key decision point when we do look at getting certification.

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