In the past months, there have been several troubling research reports, from different parts of the world, exploring aspects of the same problem: Multi-drug resistant bacteria are present in chicken, apparently because of the use of antibiotics in poultry production, and are passing to people who work with, prepare or eat chicken, at some risk to their health.
Here are a few of the publications:
- From the US Department of Agriculture and University of Georgia, which has probably the deepest poultry-science research bench in the United States, an analysis of multi-drug resistant E. coli found on broiler chicken carcasses.
- From several institutions in Germany, an analysis that finds “alarmingly high” levels of multi-drug resistant bacteria on retail chicken — including on organic chicken, which the authors say may be due to bacterial colonization of chicks before they are bought by organic producers.
- From the Czech Republic, a report that bacteria found on chicken there are resistant to an additional class of drugs important in human medicine, fluoroquinolones.
- From a multi-national team, a look at the close resemblance of multi-drug resistant E. coli between poultry and humans in several countries including the United States.
- And most recently, two more European reports, from the Netherlands and from Sweden, of high rates of multi-drug resistant bacteria on chicken meat (and in the Netherlands paper, a comparison to resistant bacteria in humans as well).
This association between antibiotic use in poultry production, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in poultry meat, and the same or similar bacteria in humans keeps being repeated. (For some sense of how often, check this review article from last fall or my own pieces last summer.)
So if this potential hazard has been identified over years, why isn’t it being addressed? A powerful op-ed last week in Food Safety News suggests why: No transparency in poultry production, and therefore no leverage for finding points in the process where the potential hazards could be reduced. The piece, by Leah Garces of the nonprofit Compassion in World Farming, is very direct; it’s titled “Why We Haven’t Seen Inside a Broiler Chicken Factory Farm in a Decade.”
Here’s her answer:
Globally, the world raises and slaughters some 40 billion chickens for meat every year – 9 billion of whom are right here in the U.S. We are the world’s largest producer. More than 99 perccent of U.S. broiler chickens are raised in barren windowless enclosed long houses, houses that remain inaccessible to anyone outside the industry…
A full 25,000 individual animals defecate in the same enclosed space for 45 days. They get a lot bigger, rapidly growing from the size of your fist to the size of a soccer ball in that short period. They crowd that space as they grow, with each individual only having space equivalent to less than a piece of 8”x11” paper. It is a sea of chickens from wall to wall, sitting in their own feces, struggling to move, in large part because of their genetics. The modern broiler chicken is unnaturally large and has been bred to grow at a fast rate. This selective breeding produces as side effects serious welfare consequences including leg disorders: skeletal, developmental and degenerative diseases, heart and lung problems, breathing difficulty, and premature death. The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture explains the unnaturally fast growth rate as follows: “If you grew as fast as a chicken, you’d weigh 349 pounds at age 2.”
Garces’ piece, which was timed to the opening of the annual International Poultry Expo being held in Atlanta this week, is specifically a challenge to the “ag gag” laws passed in three states (Iowa Missouri, Utah) and proposed in several more. Those laws make it illegal to reproduce images or video from the inside of large-scale farms, even if they portray scenes of animal cruelty. (The most recent legislative attempt, in Pennsylvania, was proposed in order to defend an egg producer in whose barns undercover workers found live birds caged with long-dead ones.)
The primary concern behind the undercover investigations that the ag-gag laws target has been animal welfare. But the persistence with which drug-resistant organisms emerge from poultry production suggests that more transparency would benefit human welfare too. Garces winds up her piece with a vital point:
How will we know we have arrived at meaningful reform? We will have arrived when the inside of the chicken farm is not left to our imagination, when there is nothing left to hide.