According to the New York Times, chicken giants Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Foster Farms have heeded the call from the science world and voluntarily agreed to limit the amount of antibiotics doled out to their fowl.

In February, the three companies—who produce one-third of the chicken consumed in the United States, supplying restaurant chains such as McDonald's and Popeye's—issued statements saying they would cut back on the quantities of antibiotics fed to healthy birds. They also agreed to curtail use of some particular strains, namely fluoroquinolones, Bayer products closely related to Cipro, that are similar to those used to treat anthrax.

Mainstream poultry producers have been enamoured with nontherapeutic antibiotic use for years. The drugs keep birds from developing even minor illnesses that might prevent them from reaching full size—and optimum market price—quickly enough. According to Randy Duranceau, director of sales and marketing at Petaluma, Calif.-based Petaluma Poultry, conventional birds are expected to reach full size in five weeks, while organic or antibiotic-free fowl can take as much as twice that time.

But growing concern about antibiotic resistance in the scientific community and clamor from the natural foods channel were echoed by three studies printed in the October 2001 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. The reports confirmed the link between antibiotic overuse and drug-resistant bacteria. (See "FDA Bans Two Poultry Drugs," NFM, December 2000.) And since 1995, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the poultry industry permission to use a controversial antibiotic, contrary to the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bacteria resistance among humans has risen from practically nothing to 18 percent.

Representatives for the poultry industry, quoted in the Times, said the move was made to ensure the industry wasn't contributing to this developing public health issue. But as far as the Food Safety and Inspection Service is concerned, antibiotics are allowable additives to feed, and the companies have no requirement to report the amount used in production.

So concerned consumers looking to avoid poultry produced with antibiotics must either trust Tyson, Perdue and Foster, or buy poultry certified as organic or not raised with antibiotics.

"If they really do it, that's great. But who's gonna know? We're out here in California raising certified-organic, range-free and vegetarian-fed chickens," Duranceau said. "What they say they do doesn't really affect our business."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 16