Summit panel takes on poultry industry myths

Managing Editor

CAMBRIDGE, Md. (April 28, 2015) — Antibiotic use and animal welfare were just two of several hot topics discussed with poultry industry officials and journalists and food bloggers at the National Chicken Council’s Chicken Media Summit last week.
As part of the two-day summit focused on the Delmarva’s poultry industry, a panel session focused on breaking down myths in the poultry industry.
The writers from across the nation also toured industry facilities and farms that grow and process chickens.
Dr. John Glisson, director of research for the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, talked about reports that chickens are fed antibiotics just to make them grow faster and antibiotic use in chickens is fueling resistance in humans.
He said many of the antibiotics that helped chickens grow were licensed by the Food and Drug Administration in the 1970s or earlier and bird growth was how their effectiveness was measured.
“The only thing that could be measured is they make the chickens grow faster. They did and they still do. Now we know how they work and the way they make chickens grow faster is from preventing disease,” Glisson said. “But the name has stayed around, growth promoters. So that’s not the reason that they’re fed but it’s one of the results it makes them grow faster.”
Glisson said while 80 percent of antibiotics sold are used on animals, when spread out over all raised, it’s a very small amount per animal.
“The number of animals is a really important thing,” he said. “The number of chickens that we produce in a year is equal to the human population of the entire planet.”
Also, 40 percent of the antibiotics used in poultry production are not used for human health and have “no effect on antibiotic resistance that we see in human pathogens,” Glisson said.
With more companies moving away from antibiotic use and with new FDA rules on antibiotic use going into full effect at the end of 2016, Dr. Kate Barger, director of world animal welfare for Cobb-Vantress, said there’s a concern among veterinarians that they’re going to have fewer option in keeping birds healthy in the production chain.
“The concern is when you take away antibiotics and in many cases that’s the right thing too, but the question is what are you going to be able to use as an alternative product or an alternative method or an alternative practice that’s going to help them safeguard the wellbeing of those birds that are in your care?” she said.
Glisson added that removing antibiotics won’t solve bird health problems completely.
“I think for a consumer they think if you ban antibiotics you’re going to ban disease and it doesn’t work that way,” he said. “You’re still going to have flocks for various reasons that have to be treated. No matter what you do you’re still going to have illness.”
On the topic of animal welfare, Barger said reports that chickens on contract farms grow so fast and get so big that they can’t stand up is a myth.
Showing a picture of a broiler chicken from a 1957 university-maintained line with a current commercial broiler chicken, Barger noted the commercial broiler is much larger than its counterpart from decades ago but so are its feet and legs to support the increased weight.
Years of traditional breeding selection aided by technology like x-rays, cardiovascular monitoring and genomics have helped breeders raise better birds.
“While the birds are bigger, we want them to stand. We want them to be able to walk and this type of technology and data collection allows us to do that so these boilers have a good life,” Barger said.
Breeding, from starting with a pedigree female to having production broilers takes about four years, Barger said, and is only part of how future chickens will look and perform.
“What we will see in the next five years is going to be a combination of genetics, it’s going to be a combination of management and nutrition and it’s going to be a combination of the environment that we maintain for those birds,” she said.
Another concept dispelled by the speakers as myth is the use of fillers in chicken feed to fatten them up. Glisson said there isn’t anything non-essential in the feed.
“I’m not even sure what a feed filler would be,” Glisson said. “The fillers that make them gain weight are energy and protein and feed is loaded with that. So if that’s a filler….”
Barger said broiler feed is a combination of corn, soy and vitamin and mineral packs developed by the company.
“Feed is about 70 percent of the cost of producing boilers,” Barger said. “So the idea that you would add something that’s not going to help them convert efficiently, I can’t even imagine what that would be.”