Poultry companies need to balance consumer preferences with flock health, welfare and food safety
“Unfortunately, the same people asking for more animal welfare are also asking us to take antibiotics out of poultry production,” lamented Suzanne Dougherty, DVM, a consulting poultry veterinarian based in Alabama, in a recent interview with Poultry Health Today.
She noted that veterinarians take very seriously their oath to do what’s best for the animal, which increasingly presents ethical and welfare dilemmas when dealing with sick birds in an antibiotic-free (ABF) program.
“We need to consider what’s going to be best for the bird before we just throw all of the antibiotics out,” Dougherty said. “For veterinarians it’s a very difficult ethical issue — it goes against what’s best for the bird.”
Critical to welfare
In some cases, the best treatment option for the bird is an antibiotic to help prevent suffering and even minimize mortality. “At times it is a critical animal-welfare option to have antibiotics available for treatment of the bird,” she said.
Antibiotic-free, raised without antibiotics and no antibiotics ever are just a sampling of the claims being used in poultry production and marketing today — and they all say something a little different. For instance, some systems allow the use of ionophores or animal-only antibiotics while others are not using any antibiotics.
“Flocks can be raised successfully in an ABF system, but sometimes flocks get sick — just like you or your kids,” she said, adding that veterinarians “should try to explain to consumers why this is an important topic.”
Some growers in ABF systems have the option to treat sick birds and sell them through the conventional market following withdrawal times while others have limited options. But regardless of the production system, all growers feel the pressure, she insisted. They want to do the right thing for their birds while meeting the needs of their customers and consumers.
Keep intestinal tract ‘happy’
Intestinal health is the key to successful ABF production, Dougherty explained.
“If the intestinal tract is happy, the bird is productive,” she added. “We’re rapidly losing options for managing intestinal health and we need them to be available to prevent death and increase welfare.”
When the balance of the bird’s intestinal health becomes disrupted, more opportunistic bacteria often proliferate — Salmonella being the major concern. “We’re all striving to maintain our progress in food safety,” she said. “Sometimes we need to use antibiotics to treat the disease and help keep the animal healthy enough to prevent Salmonella from becoming a problem.”
“The industry has come so far from a food safety perspective that I’d hate to see the removal of some of these antibiotics make us take two steps backward in that arena,” Dougherty said.