Forbidding antibiotics in poultry threatens animal welfare, veterinary ethics
By Suzanne Dougherty, DVM, MAM, MS, DACPV
Pecking Around Consulting, Inc.
Over the past decade, the US poultry industry has made vast improvements in flock health, livability and bird performance. This success is largely the result of continuous advances in genetics, animal husbandry, health and feed. Everyone who works in the poultry industry has contributed to these achievements.
The poultry veterinarian’s primary role is to ensure optimal flock health with the ultimate goal of delivering safe protein to all consumers. To get there, we start with the health of the breeders and follow the process through the hatchery and throughout the life of the flock.
To keep flocks as healthy as possible, we need a proper barn environment with good ventilation as well as ideal feed ingredients and formulas. However, animals on farms, much like children in a school or day care, have close contact, and when an infectious disease occurs, it can spread rapidly throughout the population. Disease prevention and control of poultry flocks to maintain their health and welfare is essential and requires proper tools, which include vaccines and antibiotics.
Veterinarians in the poultry industry are at a critical crossroads. Consumers are demanding optimal animal welfare and, at the same time, want us to eliminate the use of antibiotics we need to prevent, treat and control disease. The decision of some restaurant chains and other poultry retailers to no longer buy poultry that’s been treated with any antibiotic — even medications that aren’t important to human medicine — is a big loss for bird health and animal welfare and poses a huge ethical dilemma for veterinarians.
When we graduate from veterinary school, we take an oath. We solemnly swear to use our scientific knowledge and skills “for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources [and] the promotion of public health…”
No-antibiotic policies ask us to violate every aspect of our oath. The most relevant example involves coccidiosis, the common and persistent parasitic disease in poultry that, if not managed, results in animal suffering. One critical tool in controlling coccidiosis is animal-specific drugs called ionophores, which are classified as antibiotics. Ionophores not only provide the poultry industry with an important option for managing coccidiosis, they are a vital component of the rotation programs that help combat coccidial resistance and promote animal welfare.
While we can often manage coccidiosis with vaccines, it’s sometimes necessary to use ionophores. Although they are classified as antibiotics, they aren’t used in people and work differently than antibiotics that are used in human medicine. Prohibiting their use could lead to an increase in the incidence of Salmonella, and that’s a threat to food safety and public health.
For the past 5 years, the poultry industry has worked diligently to significantly reduce Salmonella in meat. Forbidding use of the drugs we need to manage disease could be a detriment to these efforts. Research has shown that broilers with increased intestinal disease — primarily coccidiosis — are more likely to have Salmonella, the bacterium that lives in the lower intestinal tract and tends to replicate following intestinal damage. As you can see, the ability of veterinarians to use antibiotics when needed is critical.
Bacitracin is another excellent drug choice used in the poultry industry to treat flocks with necrotic enteritis, a serious intestinal disease that causes considerable animal suffering. Bacitracin is not important to human medicine, according to FDA. However, this drug is also prohibited by food vendors who buy and market poultry that is “raised without antibiotics” if they follow guidelines from the World Health Organization instead of the FDA.
Veterinarians are trained to determine when animals require antibiotics. While we support the prevention of disease in every way possible without using antibiotics, there are times when these medications are necessary. The veterinary profession strongly believes in the responsible and judicious use of antibiotics to reduce antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, but animal welfare and food safety must always be taken into consideration.
In summary, the push to eliminate the use of antibiotics takes away vital tools of the veterinary profession. A few food retailers adopting “no antibiotic” policies, such as McDonald’s, have at least educated themselves about ionophores and made an exception for them, and this is a positive move for poultry health. Conversely, policies that forbid the use of any antibiotics will result in more pain and suffering for flocks and will likely result in a higher incidence of sick flocks entering the food system. This is an animal-welfare issue and a public-health issue and threatens the oath that is the foundation of the veterinary profession.
 Arakawa A, et al. Influence of coccidiosis on Salmonella colonization in broiler chickens under floor-pen conditions. Poult Sci. 1992 Jan;71(1):59-63.