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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

What Does “Antibiotic-Free” Really Mean? Insight from a Contract Chicken Farmer

Sarah Damian | October 13, 2015

There’s a lot of confusion around antibiotic-free labeling, promises by Big Ag, and what decisions (or lack thereof) the majority of U.S. farmers can make when it comes to their chicken’s health. To clear things up, the Food Integrity Campaign asked contract farmer-turned-whistleblower Craig Watts some key questions.

Craig_Watts_photoCraig has been raising chickens for Perdue in North Carolina for 22 years. Last December, he couldn’t remain silent any longer and blew the whistle on Perdue’s practices that he believed were illegal and compromised the safety and integrity of the chicken sold to consumers. After facing retaliation for speaking out, FIC helped Craig file a complaint alleging violations of whistleblower protections under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). His case is still pending, but Craig continues to hold the industry accountable – including for its PR around antibiotics. The Q&A discussion below aims to shed light on the issue.

FIC: Perdue recently announced that more than half of its chickens are raised without any antibiotics. Have you raised any of these antibiotic-free birds?

Craig: Yes, right now I raise exclusively what Perdue calls “No Antibiotics Ever” or NAE birds.

I first learned that Perdue was processing NAE birds a few years back in one of their Kentucky plants. And from what I heard, they weren’t having much luck with it. Soon after, Perdue bought Coleman Natural Foods in 2011, and the organic, antibiotic-free market must have been a success because after the Coleman purchase, Perdue started to expand the NAE program. Eventually, it made its way to chicken farms in the Carolinas, and in June 2012, the Dillon, South Carolina plant that processes the birds I raise started processing something like 360,000 NAE birds a week (or about 1/3 of the week’s production).

Perdue sent me my first NAE flock in mid-2013. At that point, Perdue was still trying to figure out how to successfully raise so many birds without the safety net of antibiotics. They would have us cycle NAE birds and non-NAE birds – so for example, farmers would raise two non-NAE flocks and then two NAE flocks. This allowed NAE birds to still access the residual antibiotics in the litter from the non-NAE flock. So even though we weren’t directly giving NAE birds antibiotics, they constantly pecked litter that had antibiotic residue left over from previous flocks. Back then, if you ran three consecutive NAE flocks, all kinds of health issues popped up.

When Perdue first began removing antibiotics from their hatcheries, they didn’t focus on proper sanitation measures, and so farmers were constantly receiving infected chicks. Without the antibiotics, bacterial infections like Staphylococcus, Salmonella and E.coli skyrocketed. This meant that thousands of infected chicks were being delivered to farms. It was a really difficult time for farmers. Thankfully, Perdue has improved its practices since then and really worked to clean up its hatcheries.

As of the end of 2014, my farm and all of the farms that send birds to the Dillon processing plant only grow NAE flocks.

FIC: It sounds like Perdue’s development of its antibiotic-free line has gone through several iterations. Does that mean consumers should take the “No Antibiotics Ever” label with a grain of salt? What should people be aware of when making purchasing decisions?

Craig: Consumers shouldn’t assume that because something says “No Antibiotics Ever” or “Not Raised with Antibiotics” that it is raised 100 percent naturally. Chicks at Perdue are still getting all kinds of medications and even antimicrobials in their feed and water. To be honest, when chicks are raised in such close quarters, they need these medications. The bird density in these chicken houses is tightly packed and without certain precautionary medications, illness would spread rampantly.

In general, when it comes to labeling, I really just want consumers to understand what it is that they’re purchasing. To me, this boils down to two questions: First, is a label verifiable? In other words, is it something that can be objectively measured and verified? Do poultry companies make the ingredients in their feed publicly available? When it comes to antibiotics, is there a transparent way to confirm that chickens labeled as antibiotic-free were raised in an antibiotic-free setting and processed at a plant that’s not processing other poultry raised with antibiotics?

Jim Perdue was recently quoted as saying, “What you think is humane treatment of an animal and what I think is humane treatment of an animal can be different.” This is a perfect example of how labels can be quite subjective. If you see something labeled as “humanely raised,” make sure that it was raised in a way that squares with what you identify as “humane.”

And second, if it is verifiable, what does the label actually mean? Consumers need to know that certain labels really don’t mean anything in the broiler industry. For example, “cage-free” is the industry norm. I have never heard of a farmer in the broiler industry raising his birds in cages; it just doesn’t happen. So a consumer that purchases one brand of poultry over another just because it has a label “cage-free” doesn’t understand the true meaning of the label. The same goes for consumers that purchase chicken with the label “No Antibiotics Ever” – consumers need to understand what antibiotics are typically used to raise poultry and how, if at all, the subtraction of these types of antibiotics from the food stream benefits them.

FIC: According to a recent New York Times article, Perdue has “perfected” the raising of antibiotic-free chickens. Can you describe the different practices Perdue farmers employ to raise antibiotic-free birds?

Craig: Really, the best thing Perdue has done to improve its production of NAE birds is the sanitation of its hatcheries. As chicken farmers, we’re using the exact same practices as we used with birds raised on antibiotics. The only difference is that the feed we give the chickens doesn’t have drugs classified as antibiotics in it. People seem to think that NAE means birds have had some sort of privileged care, but this isn’t the case. Cleaner hatcheries really were the answer.

That said, for anyone to say they have “perfected” anything is quite a brash statement. When you say perfection you mean there is no room for improvement. Perdue being ahead of the curve on antibiotics is a far cry from perfection.

One thing that in particular concerns me is Perdue’s statement on their website that they will treat animals with antibiotics if necessary for the health of the animal. I have yet to see this practice employed. In fact, in March 2014 I had a batch of infected NAE chicks delivered to my farm. I lost a few thousand birds to infection the first week. Because I’m a contract farmer, I don’t have permission to medicate these birds without Perdue’s permission and don’t have access to the antibiotics even if I did. I told Perdue about the infected birds and even sent them pictures of the bacterial infections I was finding. But they didn’t do anything – no investigation, certainly no treatment. I was told that they wouldn’t do anything until the birds started to die from the infection – something I found especially troubling since it completely ignored the welfare of the chickens. It was akin to Perdue telling me that I needed to wait to go to the doctor until I was already dead.

Even if Perdue were to stand by its promise and medicate sick birds with antibiotics, I don’t know where they would process these birds. The Dillon plant is now certified as NAE. It’s the only plant that processes birds from my flock. Where do the birds that have been given antibiotics to comply with animal welfare standards go for slaughter? The sad reality is that a bird that is sick and antibiotic-free is worth more money than a cured bird who has been administered antibiotics.

FIC: As a farmer, what are you most concerned about when receiving chicks from Perdue?

Craig: I cannot describe how disheartening it is to get a batch of chickens that are completely laden with bacteria from the moment they arrive from the hatcheries. These birds are dumped by Perdue employees into feed pans and they just lay there until removed from the house. I will cull or remove them as quickly as possible, but when I am delivered 114,000 birds per flock, it is impossible to take the proper precautions immediately. In the meantime, the healthy chicks peck feed right under where the sick chicks were just shedding bacteria. It is a gut-wrenching thing to watch.

FIC: Since Perdue made your farm completely NAE, have you noticed an improvement in the quality of the chicks you receive from hatcheries?

Craig: Overall in 2015, I have had fewer issues with hatchery-related infections than in previous years, thanks to Perdue upgrading and cleaning its hatcheries. Unfortunately, this process requires constant vigilance. I just received a batch of chicks from a hatchery with almost as many broken eggshells as there were chicks. I can tell you that this is a sign that some of the plant equipment wasn’t working correctly. The problem with eggs in the shipment is that eggshells are really nothing more than a bacteria breeding pool, and this in turn can lead to infection in young chicks. Luckily, the chicks in this recent flock never caught an infection.

FIC: Who bears the cost of sick birds?

Craig: I can tell you without a doubt that the farmers bear this cost. On occasion, Perdue will partially reimburse us for sick or injured chicks, but this is only occasionally and since it’s somewhat arbitrary, you can’t in any way rely on it. Unfortunately, this means that Perdue isn’t always forced to recognize the actual sacrifices that accompany irresponsible practices. An infected flock can cost a farmer thousands of dollars in lost income. In truth, a significant portion of the cost of Perdue’s quest to perfect the NAE production has been shouldered by the farmer.

FIC: Do you have any other thoughts to share?

Craig: I see my current FSMA complaint against Perdue as one more step in the path towards greater transparency in the poultry industry. When companies are held accountable for their poultry practices, consumers get better, more wholesome products. Not just products that are superficially labeled as “better.” As insiders, Perdue employees and farmers are in the best position to speak up when we see something wrong. We shouldn’t be penalized for alerting the public to these concerns.

For more on Craig’s whistleblowing, check out his full story and that of other contract poultry farmers here.

24 Comments

  1. Harold Robinette Jr. says:

    Hold them to the wall of higher standard’s!!! We need to know how our food’s are processed. Thank you Craig.Report

  2. Wendi Tow says:

    Thank you for educating the consumer and thank you for your honesty.Report

  3. Laura says:

    Thank you Craig for sticking your neck out to educate the consumer. As a consumer who pays double, triple the amount assuming Im getting what claims to be organic, humane, etc. Its disheartening to see the misleading labeling and practices.Report

  4. Carrie says:

    It’s brave, good-hearted farmers with a conscience, like you, that will hopefully change America’s big-business food industry. Thank you, Craig!Report

  5. Sisan Lanes says:

    This is the way business has always been run, problems brought to the forefront and then forced to change when enough workers and consumers make a God awful noise that cannot be ignored. Keep it up!Report

  6. melanie grech says:

    I don’t agree with the total ban from the use of antibiotics. This is good for human health but not for the animals which are left untreated. Obviously the addition of antibiotics to the food is a bad extreme, but I definitely think that sick animals should be treated. The use of antibiotics can be reduced drastically by reducing the crowding of the animals and raising hygiene practices.Report

  7. JenK says:

    Thank you Craig!Report

  8. Robert Grillo says:

    “No antibiotics ever” means you send sick birds to slaughter or allow them to languish with diseases untreated that could otherwise be easily treated.” This is not “food integrity.” The birds, once again, small farm or large farm, are the victims. Of a large rescue of chickens from an organic, pasture-based farm, Animal Place had this to say about the condition of the birds:

    Because this farm is organic, they never use antibiotics. While misuse of antibiotics is rampant in animal agriculture, with 80 percent of all antibiotics fed or administered to otherwise healthy animals, antibiotics should be used to treat sick animals. These hens suffered for days, possibly weeks, with a painful respiratory illness that antibiotics would help. At Animal Place, all chickens were put on a regimen of appropriate antibiotics.

    Two dozen hens have eyes missing from untreated sinus infections. Twenty-eight have infections so severe that their sinuses have swollen into their tracheas and eyes. The most ill are receiving daily care at our permanent sanctuary including treatment with two types of antibiotics, pain medications, and probiotics. For organic, eggs.

    Several hens are severely de-feathered, common when molting chickens are not fed a proper diet. Others have damaged beaks from malnutrition.

    Why do we rescue hens from pasture-based farms? It may surprise the conscientious consumer, but these hens are more ill than those recently rescued from cages at a conventional battery cage facility. ”

    For more details, contact Marji Beech at Animal PlaceReport

  9. Bettie says:

    Just read that chickens are fed arsenic laced feed and we are slowly being poisoned, No chicken for for me,Report

  10. Jill Gaughan says:

    Disgusting how people have no regard for the suffering or the lives of other creatures we share this planet with and even profits from this torture, abusive slavery.Report

  11. Mattwm says:

    To get to the point where we all will be happy with the quality of the product and the quality of life for the animal, it will cost money. To get what people want, they will have to pay for it, or grow their own, which I’m starting to believe is the best answer. Right now, I do pay more for what I think it a better product, but now I’m finding out that it’s not that much better. To get there, we will have to pay more and those who cannot afford it will have to find another alternative.Report

  12. Mattwm says:

    Bettie, don’t believe everything you read, and keep in mind that there is arsenic is most water we drink.Report

  13. Judy Hayden says:

    Thank you Craig for the honesty. I have resorted to getting my eggs from private farms of people I know. It is terrible when the hens are not laying and I have to try to fish through the different brands and pick out the one I have most faith in. I live in Texas. Any good advice?Report

  14. Carole Morison says:

    Bravo, Craig! Why does it have to take a farmer to stick his/her head on the chopping block to bring these issues to the surface? Education about consumer purchasing and what labels do and don’t mean needs to escalate. Secondly, who says that companies don’t use antibiotics? The company! Just because a company says it doesn’t, does not make it true. The company formulates, mixes, and delivers the feed to the farm. Feed formulas are considered to be a trade secret and therefore companies are exempt from having to reveal what’s in their feed. It’s all in the words folks – antibiotics are antimicrobials used to treat bacterial infections!Report

  15. Tina Max says:

    I think chicken ought to be ditched altogether. Raising chickens, no matter how humane it is, is still cruel and displays lack of compassion to living breathing, sentient creatures. There are so many meat and chicken althernatives that there is no need to kill innocent animals.Report

  16. Rick Showalter says:

    Thanks Craig for doing what you did. Without a doubt there needs to be more consumer education about labels and what they actually mean. It is a war of words at this point, with everyone trying to feed into the demand for food with more integrity. Time will tell where this leads us, but more transparency in the process is a good thing in my opinion.Report

  17. Juanita navarro says:

    I’m vegan why people don’t understand we don’t need to eat another body to live ?beside the food industry want to kill us in the USA an all over the world poor innocent animals the pain and suffer for making people more rich .The meat industry don’t care about the consumer .Report

  18. Reid Phifer says:

    This is a quote written in this month’s addition of “Watt Poultry USA,” under the heading, “Forbidding antibiotics in poultry threatens animal welfare, veterinary ethics:” QUOTE: Consumers are demanding optimal animal welfare and, at the same time, want producers to stop using antibiotics needed to prevent, treat and control disease. “No-antibiotic policies ask us to violate every aspect of our veterinary oath,” writes Suzanne Dougherty, DMV, MAM, DACPV, a consulting veterinarian in Alabama. This is the first time I’ve heard a veterinarian state that “No-antibiotic polices ask us to violate every aspect of our veterinary oath.” I found this to be a very strong statement, one of which all veterinarians taking their oath should ponder deeply.Report

  19. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you Craig, for your honesty and bravery, to stand up for our right to know the truth. This was eye opening for me, I’m one of those people that pays more for the label I thought meant healthier and more humane. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s begun and we will stand beside you until the industry starts to change. We need more people like you Craig, to create change.Report

  20. Bianca says:

    Craig,
    Thank you for standing up for what you believe, even with your job on the line. I admire your bravery and quest for truth. Humans need to stop turning a blind eye to the cruelties of animal agriculture; cruelty to animals, humans, and the environment!! I am incredibly humbled to see farmers like yourself risk everything to expose what goes on behind closed doors. I can’t wait to see how many more farmers will follow in your steps!Report

  21. Rick says:

    Eating a plant-based diet is the only way to avoid this cruelty and remain healthy.Report

  22. Rick Showalter says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Is it cruel to the vegetables when we eat them?Report

  23. Reid Phifer says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    That is funny [Rick Showalter], but don’t think for a minute there are not those out there lacking in common sense enough to be wondering if your statement could possibly warrant future studies.Report

  24. Rick Showalter says:

    Maybe we could get a government sponsored study to record the scream of a carrot when we cut its head off. If someone wants to eat vegetables I am fine with that, and if someone wants to eat meat I am fine with that also. I am all for food with more integrity and agree there are things that can be done to move us in that direction. Craig (and others) are helping us to do this and deserve some respect in my opinionReport

  25. Corey Jackson says:

    Prophylactic antibiotic use in the food supply is troubling because of the growing reality of antibiotic resistance among bacteria. That being said, I agree that it is irresponsible to raise chickens in existing (read: overcrowded, immunity-stressing) systems with “no antibiotics ever.” This begs the perhaps obvious question, what other solutions have yet to be explored? Have vaccinations been researched? Have crowd reducing methods been evaluated for viability and profitability? How has innovation been applied to this problem? Perdue needs to restore the farmers’ collective voice and value them as partners; when that happens, ingenuity from “the trenches” will manifest that will benefit all parties — chickens, farmers, corporate suits, and consumers. Thanks, Craig, for educating consumers on the behind-the-labels reality of NAE birds, and for standing up against Big Food. We’re pulling for you!Report

  26. Irene Wang says:

    Where are the antibiotics from?

    It is the panacea to bacterial disease when first introduced in here. However, the phenomenon of antibiotic abuse is devastated everywhere in the world now. Around 50% of antibiotics are used in raising livestock and poultry.

    The pollution-free agricultural mechanism is to establish antibiotic-free animal farming system, and then use its clean animal’s feces as the fertilizer for agricultural planting. In this way, we can stop continuing pollution from the wastes of farm animals and farm crops. And moreover it can let the environment and ecology restored.

    AFFS means Antibiotic-Free Farming System which is an innovative animal farming system without using any antibiotics and synthetic drugs during the entire farming process.Report

  27. King Petty says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I’m lol’ing at “don’t need meat.” If it wasn’t for meat protein we would still be unevolved apes. I am happy that plenty of you beta commenters will die of weakness before you contribute to the gene pool.Report

  28. Anna says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    @King Petty, name one required nutrient in meat that can’t be found in plants. Hate to break it to you, but there’s nothing magical or special about meat, dairy, or eggs that can’t already be found in the plant kingdom. As for the “unevolved apes”, you’re mistaken. There’s alot of disagreement from many anthropologists regarding meat’s contribution to our brain evolving. Since the brain’s primary source of energy is glucose (you know, the stuff found in plants and grains), it’s contested that it was the advent of cooking our food (which helps break down cell walls & release more calorically-dense nutrients) that helped us evolve. And as for being happy that people will die, well actually we’ll all die eventually so I’m not sure why you excluded yourself.

    As far as longevity goes, there was a 700 study meta-analysis that showed that a plant-based diet was superior in creating health (including the study that showed that Adventist groups and Okinawan societies are the longest living people in the world due to plant-focused diets).
    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2005/11/longevity-secrets/buettner-text

    As far as your “weakness” point, here’s a few olympic athletes who used vegan diets to help them compete & win medals….
    http://www.vegetarian-nation.com/sports-fitness/13-vegetarian-olympic-athletes-inspire/

    And here’s a few vegan bodybuilders to also counter your argument:
    http://www.greatveganathletes.com/bodybuilders

    And here’s how it can be done, for those of you interested:
    http://breakingmuscle.com/nutrition/how-to-build-muscle-mass-on-a-plant-based-dietReport

  29. Me says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    If farmers would remove the litter after each batch of chickens and sanatize rather than just let the litter accumulate they might reduce infections.Report

  30. Mat says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Me – the litter is actually the key to raising antibiotic free birds. There is both positive and negative bacteria in the manure/litter. Between flocks we manage the manure to allow the positive bacteria to kill the negative. When baby chicks are placed in the barn on top of the old litter they will begin to ingest small quantities of the positive bacteria which then helps their body fight off infections. It sounds backwards but it really works. My worst flocks with mortality were in brand new barns where positive bacteria had not taken hold and instead the barn was what you would consider to be clean. Just an FYI, our mortality for a flock averages 1-3% with absolutely no antibiotics being used. A brand new barn that is completely “clean” averages 6-7% mortality. Thankfully after the first flock the barn contains enough bacteria to become effective in raising ABF birds.Report

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