Editor's Blog: On opposite sides of the antibiotic issue

by Lawrence Aylward
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I often wonder how much the majority of consumers understand the use of human antibiotics in the meat and poultry produced for their consumption. I imagine they consider it a good thing – and a safe thing – when they see “antibiotic-free” on a package of meat or chicken, even if they’re not completely sure what it means.

But Joe Sanderson Jr., chairman and CEO of the poultry processor Sanderson Farms, had something to say about that last week when he made it clear that his company will not join the current movement of major chicken processors, including Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, to shift away from the use of antibiotics in poultry production.

“This is not something that we take lightly,” Sanderson said. “And frankly, after doing our homework, we do not plan to withdraw antibiotics from our program.”

Sanderson’s remarks came about two weeks after Tyson President and CEO Donnie Smith announced the company had set a goal to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its US broiler chicken flocks by September 2017. Tyson said it has further committed to studying and, where possible, require its producers to reduce the use of human antibiotics on cattle, hog and turkey farms.

Sanderson and Smith agree that that there is no science-based reason for eliminating antibiotic use. They also agree on antibiotic use from an animal welfare perspective.

Still, when Smith says “antibiotic-resistant infections are a global health concern,” it’s clear the two companies are on opposite sides of the issue.

And questions beg to be asked: Will any other major chicken processors side with Sanderson in the debate? Would Sanderson Farms go as far to promote on its packaging that antibiotics in chicken isn’t a bad thing?

Interestingly, both Smith and Sanderson indirectly addressed antibiotic use from a financial standpoint, something ALL consumers DO understand. Smith said Tyson’s effort to reduce the use of human antibiotics will not affect Tyson Foods’ financial performance. Sanderson took it a step further, noting that ceasing the use of antibiotics doesn’t fit with his company’s programs focused on sustainability, which is about economics as much as it is about the environment.

“It’s going to take more chicken houses, more electricity, more water, more acres of corn and more acres of soybeans,” Sanderson said. “So you’re going to have to grow these chickens longer and use all that to achieve the same market weight.”

Translation: No antibiotics will add cost.

It remains to be seen how much the mainstream media will grasp on to this latest saga involving antibiotics. If it does, will consumers take it upon themselves to educate themselves even more? Or will they become even more confused about which products to buy when shopping at the meat and poultry case?
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