Stop Eating CAFO Chicken -- Antibiotics Not Protected and Disease Rampant

cafo chickens

Story at-a-glance -

  • Seventy-five percent of countries have no plan in place to combat the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance
  • In the US, agricultural use of antibiotics on CAFOs for growth-promotion purposes has promoted the spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases
  • Tyson Foods announced it will eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its chickens by September 2017

By Dr. Mercola

Antimicrobial resistance is one of the greatest threats to global public health today. Unfortunately, instead of getting better, the problem is worsening to the point that the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated we are facing a “post-antibiotic era.”1

While bacteria mutating to overcome antibiotics is a natural phenomenon, the misuse of antimicrobial medications is propagating this trend. Many strains of bacteria are becoming resistant to even our strongest antibiotics and are causing deadly infections. The bacteria are evolving faster than we are.

Meanwhile, drug companies have all but abandoned the development of new antibiotics because of their poor profit margins. We now face the perfect storm to take us back to the pre-antibiotic age, and there is no comprehensive plan going forward.

If our few remaining effective antibiotics fail, we can expect significant casualties and an end to much of modern medicine as we know it.

WHO Report Shows 75 Percent of Countries Have No Plan…

A new report from WHO assessed 133 countries’ efforts to combat the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.2 Only 34 countries had a national plan in place to combat the problem, which means about 75 percent do not. Dr. Charles Penn, coordinator for antimicrobial resistance at WHO, told BBC News:3

“This is the first report to capture on a worldwide basis what is currently being done. Only one in four had in place a national action plan and that's too few, a lot more needs to be done. Public awareness of the issue is low in all regions, many people still believe antibiotics that kill bacteria will work for viruses such as the common cold or flu.

…We need the world to act as a whole, we need all countries to put things in place to address the problem and for every country to be travelling in the same direction.”

While solving the issue of inappropriate medical use of antibiotics (prescribing them for viral infections, for instance) is important, many are not aware that agricultural use of antibiotics potentially poses an even greater direct threat to human health by promoting the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant disease—both in animals and in humans.

An estimated 80 percent of total antibiotic sales in the US end up in livestock. Nearly 25 million pounds of antibiotics are administered to livestock in the US every year for purposes other than treating disease, such as making the animals grow bigger faster.

Agricultural antibiotics also contaminate the environment when they run off into lakes, rivers, aquifers, and drinking water, further increasing the risk of drug-resistant bacteria.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is in fact linked to food.4 In the words of Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director of the CDC:

"The more you use an antibiotic, the more you expose a bacteria to an antibiotic, the greater the likelihood that resistance to that antibiotic is going to develop. So the more antibiotics we put into people, we put into the environment, we put into livestock, the more opportunities we create for these bacteria to become resistant."

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Tyson to Remove Antibiotics from Chicken

Eliminating the use of unnecessary antibiotics in agriculture will be key to curbing the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease. In the European Union (EU), adding antibiotics to animal feed to accelerate growth has been banned for years.

In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked drug companies to voluntarily restrict the use of antibiotics that are important in human medicine by excluding growth promotion in animals as a listed use on the drug label.

This would prevent farmers from legally using antibiotics, such as tetracyclines, penicillins, and azithromycin for growth-promotion purposes. But it’s only a voluntary request, so farmers are still free to use the drugs if they so choose.

Fortunately, growing consumer awareness of antibiotic-resistant disease, as well as demand for healthier food, has prompted some companies, like Tyson, to take initiative ahead of federal action.

Tyson Foods, the largest US poultry producer (it also owns the brands Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farms, and Sara Lee), became the latest corporation to announce it will be phasing out the use of antibiotics in its chicken.5

The company said it will eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its chickens by September 2017, while also making an effort to reduce antibiotic use in cattle, hogs, and turkeys. Tyson reportedly reduced the use of antibiotics effective in humans in their broiler chickens by more than 80 percent since 2011.

More Companies Commit to Reducing or Eliminating Antibiotics in Meat

Tyson is a key chicken supplier to McDonalds, and their news came on the heels of a similar announcement from the restaurant giant. In March, McDonald’s announced they will only buy chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine, a change they also plan to phase in over the next two years.

This is likely a major impetus behind Tyson’s move, lest they lose a major account, although the company told Reutersits plans “go beyond one customer.”6 Other companies jumping on the anti-antibiotics bandwagon include Pilgrim’s Pride Corp, the second largest US poultry processor, which recently announced its plan to remove antibiotics from a quarter of its chickens by 2019.

Perdue Farms also noted that more than 95% of the chickens it produces are raised without human antibiotics, while more than half are raised with no antibiotics at all.7

Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Shake Shack also offer antibiotic-free meat and poultry, while Chick-fil-A, which is actually the largest chicken buyer in the US, announced last year that they would stop buying chicken raised with any antibiotics.

This is an important distinction, because while many companies are pledging to stop the use of human antibiotics, the meat may still contain veterinary antibiotics. McDonald’s, for instance, said, The farmers who supply chicken for its menu will continue to responsibly use ionophores, a type of antibiotic not used for humans that helps keep chickens healthy.8

Wholesale club Costco, which sells 80 million rotisserie chickens a year, has been involved in an ongoing push to end the use of human antibiotics in chicken and other livestock, although no target date has been set to reach this goal. Late last year, six of the largest school districts in the US also decided to switch to antibiotic-free chicken in their cafeterias, another major victory.

15 Million US Birds in CAFOs Infected with Avian Flu

Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are not only breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant disease… they’re breeding grounds for disease in general. Currently, we’re in the midst of a US outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N2 avian flu, which has been making the rounds at commercial poultry farms.

In April 2015, five new cases of avian flu were detected in Iowa, affecting about 6 million birds. This would bring the national tally to more than 15 million birds, spanning 13 states.9 The largest avian flu outbreak in US history occurred from 1983 to 1984, and ended up with about 17 million birds culled.

We are quick approaching that number with the latest outbreak. Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, Bill Northey, told the New York Times:10

This is a big deal… Going forward, the question is, are we done? Or does this mean more birds as we go forward?”

Could Bird Flu Spread from CAFOs to Humans?

Although avian flu doesn't spread easily among humans, its capability to mutate has scientists worrying whether it could mutate enough to cause a human pandemic. CAFOs serve as the ideal place for this to happen, as there are millions, if not billions, of host birds among which the virus can flourish. In Iowa, for instance CAFOs house an average of 60 million egg-laying hens.11

In the Netherlands, animal health authorities recently discovered bird flu in samples taken from wild ducks.12 And there is already evidence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs “jumping” from farm animals to people. For instance, two human cases of infection with the antibiotic-resistant superbug MRSA were linked to livestock in Denmark.13 As reported by Mother Jones:14

The Danish study comes on the heels a 2012 paper by a consortium of US and European researchers, which used gene sequencing to show that another common strain of MRSA originated in humans as a common staph infection, jumped to livestock, where it evolved resistance to the common antibiotics tetracycline and methicillin, and then jumped back to humans.

Of course, you can also contract antibiotic-resistant pathogens through contact with raw meat—as, for example, more than 100 people did when the agribusiness giant Cargill sent out tens of millions of pounds of ground turkey tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella in 2011.”

Just Say No to CAFO Meat

Even without human antibiotics, CAFO meat is no great deal for your health or the environment. No animal should have to suffer in one, either. In the video above, Leah Garces of Compassion in World Farming visits Craig Watts, a contract farmer for Perdue. Dissatisfied with the system, he has taken the bold step to show everyone the reality hiding behind his barn doors. "There's a lot of flaws in the system," he says. "The consumer is being hoodwinked."

His chicken farm raises about 30,000 chickens at a time (which is far less than the 60 million chickens common at farms in Iowa), and over a six-week growing period, it's considered normal for at least 1,000 of them to die. Causes of death include illness, genetic problems, and injuries occurring from overcrowding. The chicks are sent to the contract farmer from Perdue, and the farmer has no control over the health or genetics of the chicks they receive.

Their only job is to raise them, and in order to fatten them up faster, the farmers are, sadly, actually contractually prohibited from giving the flock access to open air and sunshine, because the less the chickens move, and the more they eat, the bigger they grow.

Is it any wonder that the lobbyists for the meat, egg, and dairy industries heavily promote, and several states have already enacted, so-called ag-gag laws to prevent anyone from exposing animal cruelty and food safety issues at CAFOs? They don’t want you to know what’s really going on at their “farms,” which is a significant red flag that you do not want to eat food raised there.

It’s worth noting, too, that most CAFO animals are fed with genetically modified (GM) feeds, like corn and soy. These crops are heavily treated with herbicides like Roundup, the active ingredient of which is glyphosate. Glyphosate is also patented as an antibiotic—and a very effective one at that— against a large number of beneficial organisms. Unfortunately, like all antibiotics, it also kills vitally important beneficial soil bacteria and human gut bacteria. This is yet one more way that eating CAFO foods may harm your gut, your mental health, and your physical health.

Wouldn’t You Rather Eat Meat Without Drugs?

Positive change is on the horizon. Consumer demand has put pressure on meat companies like Tyson, Perdue, and Pilgrim's Pride to adjust their production practices. Fast-food chain Carl's Jr. even recently rolled out a burger made with grass-fed, free-range beef, promising to be free of antibiotics, steroids, and hormones,15 which again shows that when enough consumers talk, corporations listen.

Toward that end, has organized a campaign calling for Trader Joe's to exclusively source its meat from animals raised without antibiotics. You can sign the petition here. You can also download, print out a flyer, and take it with you the next time you visit your local Trader Joe's store.

Finally, when shopping for truly healthy meat, organic, grass-fed, and finished meat, raised without antibiotics and other growth-promoting drugs is really the only type of meat that is healthy to eat, in my view. This you will find at farmers' markets, family farms, food coops, and certain forward-thinking grocery chains and health food stores. When shopping, keep the following labels in mind to help you find truly high-quality meat:16

100% USDA Organic label offers excellent assurance that antibiotics have not been used at any stage of production.
"No antibiotics administered" and similar labels also offer high assurance that antibiotics have not been used, especially if accompanied by a "USDA process Verified" shield.
"Grass-fed" label coupled with USDA Organic label means no antibiotics have been used, but if the "Grass-fed" label appears alone, antibiotics may have been given.
"American Grass-fed" and "Food Alliance Grass-fed" labels indicate that in addition to having been raised on grass, the animal in question received no antibiotics.
The following three labels: "Antibiotic-free," "No antibiotic residues," and "No antibiotic growth promotants," have not been approved by the USDA and may be misleading if not outright fraudulent.
"Natural" or "All-Natural" is completely meaningless and has no bearing on whether or not the animal was raised according to organic principles. "Natural" meat and poultry products can by law receive antibiotics, hormones, and genetically engineered grains, and can be raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).