LAUREL, Miss. – More than ever, consumers care about not only where their food comes from, but how and under what conditions the animals in the food system are raised. A 2013 American Humane Association poll showed 89 percent of consumers surveyed stated they were very concerned about animal welfare with 74 percent willing to pay more for humanely raised meat, dairy and eggs. Participants of the survey also ranked humanely raised food the highest in importance over organic, natural and antibiotic-free.

When the same participants were asked how familiar they were with the American Humane Certified label found on meat and dairy products, a majority answered somewhat familiar or had no idea, indicating a clear disconnect. Industry experts believe a consumer lack of knowledge of agriculture, technology and farming practices currently used regarding animal welfare is at the root of the unfamiliarity.

"The demographics have changed. More people live in urban areas and are not involved in food production. Fewer than two in 10 Americans are involved in farming – that means 98 percent just go to the store and purchase their food," explained Dr. Sacit "Sarge" Bilgili, professor emeritus at Auburn Univ.’s Dept. of Poultry Science. "People don't understand there is a lot that goes into producing food and distributing that food all over the world."

A common misconception among consumers, according to recent studies, is that conventionally raised chickens are housed in cages or endure overcrowded conditions. "The reality is, conventionally raised chickens are raised on family farms with strict veterinary oversight by teams of specialists," said Karen Grogan,Ph.D., executive vice president of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians and part-time instructor of Population Health at the Univ. of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

"I think the average consumer believes these birds are raised on large company factory farms, and they are not. They are raised on small, family farms where farmers really care about what they are doing and they do a good job," Grogan added.

Tom Super, vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council said, "Broiler [chickens] are raised in large, spacious barns, and cages are never used. These barns are sophisticated, secure facilities with strictly controlled temperature, humidity and ventilation systems inside – which provide vital protection from the outdoor elements, disease and predators. Inside the poultry barns, the chickens are free to roam, interact and bed down on the litter.

"These chickens are fed a wholesome diet consisting of grains like corn and soybeans – along with nutritional supplements such as vitamins and minerals. Contrary to some myths, growth-enhancing additives, such as hormones or steroids, are never used."

"We brought chickens inside because it was better for the birds," said Yvonne Thaxton, Ph.D., professor and director of the Center for Food Animal Well-Being at the Univ. of Arkansas. "People don't understand that these chickens are housed in large, open structures that provide a comfortable, clean environment, with carefully controlled lighting and fresh air flow through the houses to avoid any undue stress.

"It's really quite advanced from where we were 50 years ago," said Thaxton. "I think people like the idea of going back to their grandparents' way of farming because they like what they see in pictures, but I don't think they would like it if they really knew what it was like and how bad it was for the birds.

“Back then, the birds would have to forage for what they got, or eat what they could find in the dirt. Now they are provided a steady supply of vitamin-rich food and water delivered by a system that runs the length of the houses."

Confusion is often compounded by terms such as “raised without antibiotics.” These catchphrases can mislead consumers and have unintentionally have adverse consequences for the birds.

"As veterinarians, we take an oath to relieve all animal suffering, and we are passionate about what we do,” Grogan says. “When misinformation like this occurs and the tools we use to prevent animal suffering, such as antibiotics, are taken away from us, it's very disheartening. It means animals are suffering from something I know I could treat responsibly."

"In some situations you can have three to four times more dead birds in a non-preventative flock than a preventative flock - especially if you're not allowed to use treatment to stop the disease spread," says Steve Roney, DVM, MAM, Dip, ACPV, Clinical Associate Professor at the Univ. of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine regarding preventative antibiotic use.

Poultry producer Sanderson Farms believes in the judicious and responsible use of antibiotics in its statement on the subject. “The truth is, there is no credible scientific research to support the idea that the use of antibiotics when treating chickens contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance in human bacterial infections or superbugs that are resistant to treatment," says Phil Stayer, DVM, corporate veterinarian for Sanderson Farms, Laurel, Miss. "At Sanderson Farms, we believe we have a moral responsibility to protect the welfare of our animals.  It's simply the humane thing to do."

Stayer added, "Animal caretaking starts in our hatcheries even before the chick is hatched.  We administer a combination of vaccine and antibiotic inside the egg three days before chicks are scheduled to hatch. This single combined injection under the shell is the only time we inject antibiotics, leaving little opportunity for resistance to develop in the grown broilers.  Indeed, our practices and federal law require that any antibiotics administered to poultry be metabolized and clear of the chicken's system before the birds leave the farm."

Stayer said the injection treats bacterial infection that results from the egg laying process and is inevitable and that all broiler chickens receive it including those labeled “raised without antibiotics.”

Once an egg hatches, it goes into a farm transport basket and an automated system gets the hatchlings to clean water and feed in a climate controlled truck ensuring comfort and protection, Stayer explained. Sanderson Farms’ systems are audited twice a week internally and by third parties to make sure chicks are handled safely and humanely.

"A lot of companies that market antibiotic-free chicken also sell chickens treated with antibiotics through a secondary sales route. So, it seems inconsistent for these companies to say that raising chickens without antibiotics is preferable, when in actuality they are often treating some of their flocks with antibiotics, too," continued Stayer. "The only difference is they sell the treated flocks under another product label that doesn't say, 'raised without antibiotics.' For me, personally, I would have a difficult time deciding to which flocks I would give life-saving medicines and which ones I would allow to suffer and die. Just as with humans, even chickens with the best of care sometimes get sick. I am glad Sanderson Farms allows me to treat chickens with FDA approved medicine that, as a veterinarian, I deem necessary."

According to the National Chicken Council, "The top priority of farmers and chicken companies is to raise healthy chickens, because healthy chickens are directly related to a safe and wholesome food supply. Responsible, FDA-approved veterinary treatment and prevention benefits animal welfare and health by reducing the need for increased doses of shared-class antibiotics in the event of widespread disease."

"It is almost intuitive that healthy chickens and other farm animals will carry fewer bacteria and lower counts into the processing plant than those that are less healthy or sick.  Indeed, evidence from Europe and the United States supports this view," Stayer added.

Super explained the use of antibiotics by using the human analogy and relates the positives of responsible antibiotic use in economic terms. "Just like people, animals get sick, and treating illness is a responsible part of animal care. Even if you have the best animal health plan, some chickens are going to be exposed to infections that can only be cured with antibiotics.

"The US national broiler flock is incredibly healthy and is the envy of the world,” he said, noting that mortality and condemnation rates among the broiler population in the US are at historical lows.

"From a pure business standpoint, it would make zero business and economic sense for a farmer to do anything to a bird that would harm it,” he said. “The birds are their livelihoods and chicken producers want to do everything possible to keep them healthy. Their paychecks are directly related to the health and welfare of the flock."