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Cover Story - Natural Tendencies

Mainstream poultry companies eye drug-free programs to address growing consumer demands and regulatory trends

Produce healthy, competitively priced chicken without using infeed antibiotics, anticoccidials or growth promoters?

What sounded pretty far-fetched only a few years ago is steadily becoming reality for some mainstream poultry companies in the United States and other major poultry markets as they keep one eye on consumer demand and another on regulatory trends.

Smaller producers serving niche or specialty markets were the first to tap into this expanding market, using the value-added benefits of their so-called “natural chicken” to lure increasingly informed, health-conscious consumers who are willing to pay a premium for drug-free birds.

Now it appears that mainstream companies are following suit and, in some cases, actually launching “natural” lines under separate brand names. And even if they are still using antibiotics to control some diseases, there are signs that big players in the industry are trying to wean themselves from antibiotics before regulators force them to go “cold turkey.”

Scrutinizing antibiotic use

As it is, six anticoccidials were banned in the European Union last year and all but two growth-promoting antibiotics are now completely off limits (see CocciForum, No. 4). In the United States, where many of these products are still available, increasing regulatory pressure could prompt some poultry companies to reduce or eliminate some uses of drugs from livestock and poultry feeds.

For example, a recent piece of legislation, proposed by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., aims to phase out “the routine feeding of medically important antibiotics to healthy farm animals.” Sen. Kennedy’s bill is similar to a House version that carries bipartisan support as well as endorsements from the American Medical Association and other groups.

In December 2001, a U.S. group called Keep Antibiotics Working — a coalition dedicated to reducing the use of antibiotics in animals — wrote to 50 poultry producers to advise them of three studies published in October in the New England Journal of Medicine, which attempted to show links between antibiotic overuse and drugresistant bacteria found in meat and poultry products.

The coalition — which includes the Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Defense, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Natural Resources Defense Council — then asked each poultry company to “commit to eliminating the nontherapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in your production practices” and surveyed them about their antibiotic usage. The results of this survey have not yet been reported.

These types of pressures in the press and from consumer organizations are causing many producers to re-evaluate their current practices.

What’s Natural and What’s Not?

What exactly is “natural chicken” anyway? As is the case with other similar terms, like “organic” and “free-range,” it depends on whom you ask. “There has been little or no headway made toward a uniform definition of what ‘natural’ really means,” says Yvonne Thaxton, editor of Poultry magazine. According to USDA, the natural chicken label means “no artificial ingredients or colors were added, and that it was minimally processed.” But what, then, does “artificial” mean? And what about “minimally processed”? Right now there are a lot more questions on this topic than there are definitive answers.

Filling the void

To fill the potential void left by antibiotics, some mainstream poultry companies are putting more emphasis on vaccines and other biological or natural controls. And, according to some reports, they appear to be making those strategies work — without experiencing big increases in production costs.

Mainstream poultry companies contacted by CocciForum understandably declined to comment on their marketing plans for “natural” chicken or what they were doing to combat disease without the usual arsenal of feed antibiotics and anticoccidials. It is, after all, a highly competitive industry. Even so, in talking with industry people, it seems that major producers are definitely moving in the less-drugs-is-better direction.

Yvonne Thaxton, executive editor of Poultry — a magazine serving the packing and food-processing industries — says recent announcements by Tyson, Foster Farms and Perdue that they would eliminate use of some types of antibiotics will likely accelerate the movement toward more drug-free poultry.

“Like it or not,” Thaxton wrote in a recent column, “there are a lot of people who still believe that chicken are routinely fed antibiotics and hormones” in their starter and grower feeds, and so they don’t eat poultry. “Anything that poultry producers can do to change that perception will help attract more consumers.”

In an article last February about poultry companies shying away from antibiotics, The New York Times told its readers, “Treating a few sick birds [with antibiotics] requires treating the entire flock, and flocks often number more than 30,000. The only way for consumers to be certain the chickens they buy have not been treated with antibiotics is to purchase those labeled antibiotic-free, or organic.”

The article went on to report that some corporate consumers, including the high-volume fast-food chains McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Popeye’s, are now refusing to buy chicken that has been treated with certain antibiotics.

Carving a bigger niche

Natural foods of all kinds are riding a wave of popularity worldwide. Organic foods are an example. Says Thaxton, “Although in percentage terms, organic remains a tiny fraction of the market, it is a growth area with tremendous loyalty among its core customers.”

But, besides a simple preference for more natural foods, there are a number of other factors linked to increased consumer demand for more drug-free chicken and other meats.

One is the U.S. economy, which, until recently, was booming. “Because we went through a rather affluent time,” says Susan Dosier, executive editor for foods and entertaining at Southern Living magazine, “many people had the economic means to be more selective in their food, health and lifestyle choices.”

No one is willing to predict, with any assurance anyway, how the current economic slowdown is going to affect sales of more drug-free chicken in the coming months and years, but industry trend-watchers say they see little sign of it slowing.

Another significant factor fueling growth in so-called natural chicken has been greater awareness of these issues by consumers. “The impact of the Internet has been huge [on consumer decision-making],” says Rod Smith, a veteran tracker of industry trends and staff editor for Feedstuffs, a weekly business journal for agribusiness.

“Consumers tapping away on their laptop computers are accessing a lot of information that they never had before, including information about the ways their food is produced,” he adds. “True, a lot of it is from sources that may not always be legitimate. But the information is powerful nonetheless.”

Powerful, indeed.

A survey conducted by Prevention magazine found that 51% of U.S. consumers would like to buy “organic” meat and poultry if it were labeled as such, and 35% of those people said they would be willing to pay more for those products.

Good housekeeping

In order to reduce or eliminate antibiotics from their flocks, the major companies are relying on a wide array of tactics. One of those is improving ventilation in housing areas.

“Inadequate ventilation is the source of many health problems,” says Poultry magazine’s Thaxton. “As farms keep litter for more flocks, ammonia levels increase and flock health can be compromised.”

Improved ventilation can correct much of this problem, she points out. “But increased ventilation can cost growers more money to heat the housing areas during cold months,” she adds.

Cooling systems are also drawing more attention as producers try to reduce disease pressure. “The bigger birds grown for today’s markets must be adequately cooled to get the best performance,” says Dr. Danny L. Magee, clinical professor of avian medicine at Mississippi State University. “This requires better and more efficient cooling systems.”

Effective rodent control is another important area that health-conscious growers have to watch. Dr. Hashim Ghori, director of the poultry disease program at the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission, Little Rock, stresses that rodent control is essential in raising healthy birds — with or without antibiotics.

“It’s an imperative component in any good housekeeping program,” he says. “Rodents are, of course, big carriers of Salmonella and other harmful bacteria. Smart growers are making effective rodent control a top priority.” Another aspect of good housekeeping is collecting dead birds from the housing area as soon as possible, Ghori says.

“In a flock of several thousand birds, it’s inevitable there are going to be a few birds that don’t survive for one reason or another,” he adds. “To help cut down on transmission of harmful bacteria, it’s important that growers make sure those birds are picked up on a regular basis.”

Vaccination a key component

Vaccination, against coccidiosis and other diseases, is one of the most effective tools growers are using to reduce usage of antibiotics and other drugs.

Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, director of health services at Perdue Farms, Salisbury, Md., says his company works hard to breed birds and use practices that will help the birds ward off infection in a natural way.

“Vaccines play a very strong part in our plan to prevent disease,” he says. “We’ve always had the strong philosophy that vaccination and disease prevention should be 99.9% of our focus. Our programs are meant to prevent illness. And when we have a problem with a particular flock, we take it very seriously. We look to see if we have a weakness in our system that needs to be analyzed. We spend a lot of time with disease prevention and monitoring.”

Arkansas’ Ghori agrees that vaccination plays a pivotal role in raising healthy birds for both mainstream and specialty-market poultry companies. “Vaccines are a very effective way to help chickens develop the resistance they need to withstand challenge by pathogens they encounter in the environment,” he says. “They’re a key component.”

Ghori: ‘…vaccination plays a pivotal role in raising healthy birds for both mainstream and specialty-market poultry companies.’

Keeping coccidiosis in check

Coccidiosis control is one area where mainstream poultry companies are successfully trading in traditional in-feed anticoccidials for vaccines. Coccidiosis vaccination is allowing them to reduce or eliminate some drugs from their health programs.

According to Schering-Plough Animal Health Corporation, a company that markets two lines of coccidiosis vaccines, seven of the top 10 poultry companies in the United States now vaccinate at least a portion of their birds for coccidiosis.

For example:

• For the past 5 years, Townsends of Batesville, Ark., has been vaccinating its broilers for coccidiosis from late spring to early fall. In-feed anticoccidials are used in the other cycles. “It’s more economical to vaccinate than it is to add coccidiostats to the feed,” says hatchery manager Dave Kohler. (See CocciForum, Issue No. 4.)

• Peco Foods of Sebastopol, Miss., has been vaccinating for coccidiosis since 1998. “With the new spray cabinet technology, the vaccine is distributed uniformly and we’re getting excellent control — as good or better than what we’ve had with any in-feed product,” says live production manager Van Bowman. He adds, “Because the vaccine protects against coccidiosis for the lifetime of the bird [as opposed to a limited treatment period by programs using in-feed anticoccidials], I don’t have to worry about birds breaking with disease as they get older.” (See CocciForum, Issue No. 2.)

The trend is also catching fire overseas. As reported in a previous issue of CocciForum (No. 1), southeast Asian poultry giant Charoen Pokphand, Bangkok, found vaccinating for coccidiosis to be an effective way to reduce drug use in its flocks.

Somboon Denvanich, a senior vice president for the company, says CP’s resellers “wanted a strategy for adding value to their products.” He adds, “Drug-free birds are helping our resellers reach that goal and obtain a premium price on their products.”

Measuring returns

But what about the costs-versus-profit of raising birds using a coccidiosis vaccine rather than routine use of drugs?

In the case of CP, Denvanich says that finishing time for a 2-kilo (4.4 lb) vaccine-only bird is about 45 days — about 3 days more than when the company uses growth-promoting antibiotics such as zinc bacitracin and virginiamycin, and other feed antibiotics. “Overall our production costs are up about 10%,” he says, “but we’re getting about a 15% premium” on the vaccineonly birds.

Results of studies comparing vaccinated birds with those receiving in-feed coccidiostats support the real-world experience reported by CP and others. In one series of studies conducted by Dr. Harry Danforth of USDA, weight gain and feed efficiency in vaccinated birds initially lagged behind those fed anticoccidials. However, the vaccinated birds eventually caught up and, by the end of the study, there was no statistically significant difference in weight or feed efficiency between the two groups, which were grown 53 to 63 days.1 Similar results have been obtained in studies with broilers.

Still, a number of important questions remain. One is whether the demand for drug-free poultry is a growing trend or just a passing fad. Another is exactly how much growers can rely on vaccines and good housekeeping practices alone to keep their flocks healthy without in-feed drugs. And still another: What sort of profits can growers reap — over the long term as well as the short term — from raising drugfree or so-called natural birds?

Those are questions that are likely to be answered sooner rather than later by producers working hard to expand this once regarded “niche” market into a major one.

As Poultry’s Thaxton puts it, “Looking for creative ways to increase consumption both locally and internationally sometimes means looking for big opportunities in smaller places.”

Reference

1 Int J Parasitol, 1998 Jul; 28 (7):1099- 1109.

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