LAUREL, Miss. – Sanderson Farms Inc. remains the only large poultry processor that has not transitioned to antibiotic-free chicken production, but the company’s position on the use of medically important antibiotics has shifted.

The company announced it will discontinue by March 1 the use of antibiotics considered medically important for humans for disease prevention in its live poultry operations. The decision follows the findings by an advisory board commissioned by Sanderson to examine and report on the company’s use of antibiotics in poultry production. Joe F. Sanderson, chairman and chief executive, said the company remains committed to antibiotic stewardship and animal welfare through the judicious use of antibiotics in the company’s birds.

“We are grateful for the work of the independent scientists who served on the advisory board, and we value their findings,” Sanderson said. “As a result of their report, we have determined to discontinue by March 1, 2019, the use of gentamicin and virginiamycin for prevention of disease in our live operations. These are the only two antibiotics considered medically important for humans that we currently use for prevention purposes. Our live production team, including our team of veterinarians, is prepared to ensure this change has as little impact as possible on the health and welfare of our birds and environmental resources.”

In 2017, shareholders rejected a proposal to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics in Sanderson’s poultry production, and Sanderson recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal. In a letter to shareholders, Sanderson emphasized the company’s commitment to finding alternative methods of controlling avian disease such as working with drug companies to phase out medically important antibiotics when alternatives become available.

The advisory board tasked with studying antibiotics use in Sanderson’s live poultry operations found no misuse of antibiotics or deficiencies in its program. In its report, the advisory board said chicken mortality at Sanderson “…is below industry averages for chickens raised in traditional and RWA/NAE systems, and systems where medically important antibiotics are not used, indicating that chickens at SFI have better than average health.”

However, the company’s use of gentamicin and virginiamycin “…is particularly likely to draw critical attention, because these antibiotics have been designated as medically important,” according to the report.

The advisory board concluded that a production system “…where non-medically important antibiotics… can be used for prevention, and medically important antibiotics can be used for treatment and control of disease, could represent a responsible compromise to better preserve efficacy of antibiotics important for human health, while also avoiding the adverse impacts of an RWA/NAE system on chicken health and welfare.”

The full report is available here.