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What Does “Antibiotic-Free” Really Mean? Insight from a Contract Chicken Farmer

Food Integrity Campaign | October 13, 2015

There’s a lot of confusion around antibiotic-free labeling, promises by Big Ag, and what decisions (or lack thereof) the majority of U.S. farmers can make when it comes to their chicken’s health. To clear things up, the Food Integrity Campaign asked contract farmer-turned-whistleblower Craig Watts some key questions.

Craig_Watts_photoCraig has been raising chickens for Perdue in North Carolina for 22 years. Last December, he couldn’t remain silent any longer and blew the whistle on Perdue’s practices that he believed were illegal and compromised the safety and integrity of the chicken sold to consumers. After facing retaliation for speaking out, FIC helped Craig file a complaint alleging violations of whistleblower protections under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). His case is still pending, but Craig continues to hold the industry accountable – including for its PR around antibiotics. The Q&A discussion below aims to shed light on the issue.

FIC: Perdue recently announced that more than half of its chickens are raised without any antibiotics. Have you raised any of these antibiotic-free birds?

Craig: Yes, right now I raise exclusively what Perdue calls “No Antibiotics Ever” or NAE birds.

I first learned that Perdue was processing NAE birds a few years back in one of their Kentucky plants. And from what I heard, they weren’t having much luck with it. Soon after, Perdue bought Coleman Natural Foods in 2011, and the organic, antibiotic-free market must have been a success because after the Coleman purchase, Perdue started to expand the NAE program. Eventually, it made its way to chicken farms in the Carolinas, and in June 2012, the Dillon, South Carolina plant that processes the birds I raise started processing something like 360,000 NAE birds a week (or about 1/3 of the week’s production).

Perdue sent me my first NAE flock in mid-2013. At that point, Perdue was still trying to figure out how to successfully raise so many birds without the safety net of antibiotics. They would have us cycle NAE birds and non-NAE birds – so for example, farmers would raise two non-NAE flocks and then two NAE flocks. This allowed NAE birds to still access the residual antibiotics in the litter from the non-NAE flock. So even though we weren’t directly giving NAE birds antibiotics, they constantly pecked litter that had antibiotic residue left over from previous flocks. Back then, if you ran three consecutive NAE flocks, all kinds of health issues popped up.

When Perdue first began removing antibiotics from their hatcheries, they didn’t focus on proper sanitation measures, and so farmers were constantly receiving infected chicks. Without the antibiotics, bacterial infections like Staphylococcus, Salmonella and E.coli skyrocketed. This meant that thousands of infected chicks were being delivered to farms. It was a really difficult time for farmers. Thankfully, Perdue has improved its practices since then and really worked to clean up its hatcheries.

As of the end of 2014, my farm and all of the farms that send birds to the Dillon processing plant only grow NAE flocks.

FIC: It sounds like Perdue’s development of its antibiotic-free line has gone through several iterations. Does that mean consumers should take the “No Antibiotics Ever” label with a grain of salt? What should people be aware of when making purchasing decisions?

Craig: Consumers shouldn’t assume that because something says “No Antibiotics Ever” or “Not Raised with Antibiotics” that it is raised 100 percent naturally. Chicks at Perdue are still getting all kinds of medications and even antimicrobials in their feed and water. To be honest, when chicks are raised in such close quarters, they need these medications. The bird density in these chicken houses is tightly packed and without certain precautionary medications, illness would spread rampantly.

In general, when it comes to labeling, I really just want consumers to understand what it is that they’re purchasing. To me, this boils down to two questions: First, is a label verifiable? In other words, is it something that can be objectively measured and verified? Do poultry companies make the ingredients in their feed publicly available? When it comes to antibiotics, is there a transparent way to confirm that chickens labeled as antibiotic-free were raised in an antibiotic-free setting and processed at a plant that’s not processing other poultry raised with antibiotics?

Jim Perdue was recently quoted as saying, “What you think is humane treatment of an animal and what I think is humane treatment of an animal can be different.” This is a perfect example of how labels can be quite subjective. If you see something labeled as “humanely raised,” make sure that it was raised in a way that squares with what you identify as “humane.”

And second, if it is verifiable, what does the label actually mean? Consumers need to know that certain labels really don’t mean anything in the broiler industry. For example, “cage-free” is the industry norm. I have never heard of a farmer in the broiler industry raising his birds in cages; it just doesn’t happen. So a consumer that purchases one brand of poultry over another just because it has a label “cage-free” doesn’t understand the true meaning of the label. The same goes for consumers that purchase chicken with the label “No Antibiotics Ever” – consumers need to understand what antibiotics are typically used to raise poultry and how, if at all, the subtraction of these types of antibiotics from the food stream benefits them.

FIC: According to a recent New York Times article, Perdue has “perfected” the raising of antibiotic-free chickens. Can you describe the different practices Perdue farmers employ to raise antibiotic-free birds?

Craig: Really, the best thing Perdue has done to improve its production of NAE birds is the sanitation of its hatcheries. As chicken farmers, we’re using the exact same practices as we used with birds raised on antibiotics. The only difference is that the feed we give the chickens doesn’t have drugs classified as antibiotics in it. People seem to think that NAE means birds have had some sort of privileged care, but this isn’t the case. Cleaner hatcheries really were the answer.

That said, for anyone to say they have “perfected” anything is quite a brash statement. When you say perfection you mean there is no room for improvement. Perdue being ahead of the curve on antibiotics is a far cry from perfection.

One thing that in particular concerns me is Perdue’s statement on their website that they will treat animals with antibiotics if necessary for the health of the animal. I have yet to see this practice employed. In fact, in March 2014 I had a batch of infected NAE chicks delivered to my farm. I lost a few thousand birds to infection the first week. Because I’m a contract farmer, I don’t have permission to medicate these birds without Perdue’s permission and don’t have access to the antibiotics even if I did. I told Perdue about the infected birds and even sent them pictures of the bacterial infections I was finding. But they didn’t do anything – no investigation, certainly no treatment. I was told that they wouldn’t do anything until the birds started to die from the infection – something I found especially troubling since it completely ignored the welfare of the chickens. It was akin to Perdue telling me that I needed to wait to go to the doctor until I was already dead.

Even if Perdue were to stand by its promise and medicate sick birds with antibiotics, I don’t know where they would process these birds. The Dillon plant is now certified as NAE. It’s the only plant that processes birds from my flock. Where do the birds that have been given antibiotics to comply with animal welfare standards go for slaughter? The sad reality is that a bird that is sick and antibiotic-free is worth more money than a cured bird who has been administered antibiotics.

FIC: As a farmer, what are you most concerned about when receiving chicks from Perdue?

Craig: I cannot describe how disheartening it is to get a batch of chickens that are completely laden with bacteria from the moment they arrive from the hatcheries. These birds are dumped by Perdue employees into feed pans and they just lay there until removed from the house. I will cull or remove them as quickly as possible, but when I am delivered 114,000 birds per flock, it is impossible to take the proper precautions immediately. In the meantime, the healthy chicks peck feed right under where the sick chicks were just shedding bacteria. It is a gut-wrenching thing to watch.

FIC: Since Perdue made your farm completely NAE, have you noticed an improvement in the quality of the chicks you receive from hatcheries?

Craig: Overall in 2015, I have had fewer issues with hatchery-related infections than in previous years, thanks to Perdue upgrading and cleaning its hatcheries. Unfortunately, this process requires constant vigilance. I just received a batch of chicks from a hatchery with almost as many broken eggshells as there were chicks. I can tell you that this is a sign that some of the plant equipment wasn’t working correctly. The problem with eggs in the shipment is that eggshells are really nothing more than a bacteria breeding pool, and this in turn can lead to infection in young chicks. Luckily, the chicks in this recent flock never caught an infection.

FIC: Who bears the cost of sick birds?

Craig: I can tell you without a doubt that the farmers bear this cost. On occasion, Perdue will partially reimburse us for sick or injured chicks, but this is only occasionally and since it’s somewhat arbitrary, you can’t in any way rely on it. Unfortunately, this means that Perdue isn’t always forced to recognize the actual sacrifices that accompany irresponsible practices. An infected flock can cost a farmer thousands of dollars in lost income. In truth, a significant portion of the cost of Perdue’s quest to perfect the NAE production has been shouldered by the farmer.

FIC: Do you have any other thoughts to share?

Craig: I see my current FSMA complaint against Perdue as one more step in the path towards greater transparency in the poultry industry. When companies are held accountable for their poultry practices, consumers get better, more wholesome products. Not just products that are superficially labeled as “better.” As insiders, Perdue employees and farmers are in the best position to speak up when we see something wrong. We shouldn’t be penalized for alerting the public to these concerns.

For more on Craig’s whistleblowing, check out his full story and that of other contract poultry farmers here.