Perdue Foods, the nation's third-largest poultry producer, said it has removed all antibiotics from its chicken hatcheries to address growing concerns about bacterial resistance to the widely used drugs.
The Salisbury, Md.-based company said it invested in cleaner hatcheries that eliminate the need for antibiotics on eggs. The poultry industry often injects eggs with antibiotics while vaccinating them because small holes in the shell can expose the eggs to disease.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post said antibiotics are injected to eggs after they are vaccinated. They are typically injected along with the vaccination.
Perdue is the first major poultry producer to phase out antibiotics in hatcheries, according to the National Chicken Council.
Perdue said antibiotic use is now restricted to treating sick flocks and to control a common intestinal parasite. The company eliminated antibiotic use to promote growth in its birds in 2007. Perdue said 95% of its chickens are now free of so-called medically important antibiotics – antibiotics that have an equivalent in human medicine and therefore raise the risk of creating human resistance.
"We listened to our consumers and we are proud to have developed a responsible program that does not risk the medical effectiveness of antibiotics in human health, provides appropriate healthcare for animals and does not employ growth-promoting drugs," Jim Perdue, the company's chairman, said in a statement Wednesday.
Antibiotic use has risen to the forefront in food policy debates. The medical community and consumer watchdogs say the drugs have been over-used to promote growth in farm animals and prevent illness in crowded and dirty environments. As a result, the medicine has lost some of its effectiveness, creating fears of antibiotic superbugs.
The Food and Drug Administration moved last year to phase out the use of antibiotics on farms to promote growth and restrict their use to treating animals for illness. The agency did not address the use of antibiotics on eggs after vaccination.
"This is good news," Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine, said about Perdue's announcement. "They're responding to the market."
Hansen said the industry can still do more to prevent the use of antibiotics to treat coccidiosis, a parasitic disease found in chicken intestines.
"That's endemic to these industrial-scale farms," Hansen said of the disease.
Follow @dhpierson for more news on food and agriculture.