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Weekly Overview: Can the Poultry Industry Meet Everyone's Demands?

11 December 2014

GLOBAL - How should the poultry industry react if consumer demands on one aspect of production leads to predictable adverse effects on some other aspect? This dilemma is faced by US chicken producers following an announcement by school meal providers in several large cities that they will in future only serve chicken that has never received antibiotics.

We all want to do the Right Thing, of course, but how should the poultry industry react when ever more challenging demands from consumers will have predictable adverse consequences elsewhere?

How do we balance the challenges of feeding a growing global human population with those of consumers who would prefer food to be produced as they believe it was 10, 50 or 100 years ago?

A recent example is an announcement from a coalition of school districts in the United States, which has undertaken to raise the standards of the chicken it purchases for school meals "above and beyond the quality of the chicken we normally purchase at local supermarkets".

The move, by the Urban School Food Alliance, has the stated aim to show that "school food directors across the country truly care about the health and wellness of students". It is a praiseworthy goal.

But dig into the details and one sees that the Alliance is calling for its suppliers to provide chicken reared under the following conditions: no animal by-products in the feed; raised on an all-vegetarian diet; humanely raised as outlined in the National Chicken Council Animal Welfare Guidelines – and no antibiotics ever.

The demands of this group cannot easily be overlooked, providing, as it does, almost three million meals daily in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando.

The poultry industry body, the National Chicken Council (NCC) has responded, saying it shares the goal of providing school children with food that is healthy, safe and affordable.

But its spokesperson adds: "We support consumer and student choice but we strongly caution against food trends that are not fully supported by science, will introduce higher costs into the food system, and offer no benefit to public health.”

NCC states that antibiotics are needed to treat sick animals and people, that resistance is a serious issue and that antibiotics for growth promotion are being phased out.

It adds that "antibiotic-free" is a misleading statement; all chicken meat is "antibiotic-free".

Surely those decent folks in the Urban School Food Alliance would not want chickens to suffer and possibly die for the want of legal veterinary intervention?

We still have a lot of work to do to enlighten the public on how their food is produced.

On news of avian flu this week, it has been confirmed that the highly pathogenic H5N2 variant of the bird flu virus has affected five poultry farms in British Columbia, Canada, while a fourth duck flock has been hit by the high-path H5N1 virus in the Indian state of Kerala. Three more human cases of H7N9 influenza have been reported in China.

Jackie Linden

Jackie Linden

Top image via Shutterstock

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