The Van Trump Report

Why Producers and Restaurants are Abandoning “Antibiotic-Free” Poultry and Meat Pledges

Global meatpacking giant Tyson Foods in July of 2023 announced it was resuming the use of some antibiotics in its chicken supply chain, abandoning its “no antibiotics ever” policy. That was followed by restaurant groups Chic-Fil-A and Panera Bread making similar moves. Now, Tyson has said it is scaling back its antibiotic-free beef offerings. Instead, Tyson and many other companies are adopting a new policy of “no antibiotics important to human medicine,” or NAIHM, as a more realistic approach for guaranteeing the health of businesses, humans, and animals alike.  

Tyson, which processes about one-fifth of the US chicken supply, in 2017 became the largest poultry producer to make a “no antibiotics ever”, or NAE, pledge. At the time, a global push to limit the use of antibiotics in livestock production was underway amid alarms about the growing number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In 2013, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued “final guidance implementing voluntary plans” to discontinue the use of “medically important antibiotics” in livestock for production purposes.

Not surprisingly, media headlines and animal welfare groups were prone to spreading the extreme view that livestock and poultry producers needed to eliminate all antibiotics, lest all human diseases be left “incurable.” As consumers grew increasingly alarmed, many restaurants and food makers soon began making pledges to eliminate all antibiotics from their supply chains.

As more companies jumped on the NAE bandwagon, the poultry industry warned that these pledges would be tough, if not impossible to fulfill due to a lack of antibiotic-free production. Six years after Tyson made its antibiotic-free chicken pledge, about half of US poultry farmers were still using some form of antibiotics to ensure that their chickens are healthy, per the company.

Companies have also discovered that antibiotic-free production comes with added costs, just as the industry warned. Tyson and other poultry producers have reported struggles with higher mortality rates, lower weights, and more disease in general, outcomes that have been exacerbated by the ongoing bird flu outbreak. Restaurants have likewise struggled to source adequate NAE supplies, which also come at a premium cost. What’s more, many feel that withholding life-saving medicines from sick birds is its own form of animal cruelty.

The new NAIHM standard that Tyson, Chic-Fil-A, McDonald’s, and others have adopted restricts the use of those antibiotics that are important to human medicine and commonly used to treat people but still allows the use of animal antibiotics if the animal becomes sick. The NAIHM standard is also recognized by both the USDA and the World Health Organization (WOAH). Other poultry producers and fast food restaurants that have adopted the NAIHM standard include Sanderson Farms, KFC, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s.

Tyson Foods earlier this year said its decision to resume the use of some antibiotics is paying off as birds are now healthier and the company has a “much, much stronger chicken business” than a year ago.

Critics of Tyson’s and the wider shift away from “no antibiotics ever” may be overlooking evidence that the poultry industry has greatly improved its antibiotic stewardship. According to a report from US Poultry & Egg Association, the number of broiler chickens receiving antibiotics in 2013 versus 2022 decreased from 90% to less than 1%. Medically important in-feed antibiotic use in broilers also dropped significantly. There was no reported in-feed tetracycline use from 2020 to 2022, and virginiamycin use fell 97% over the 10-year period.

The adoption of policies restricting antibiotic use in some beef has followed a similar path as poultry, though most restrictions have been less extreme. Tyson began offering some antibiotic-free beef products nearly two decades ago, including a program through marketing group Certified Angus Beef, as well as products under its own labels.

The program to sell antibiotic-free beef to CAB has now been ended, though Tyson says it will continue to work with it in other parts of its business. Additionally, the company said availability of antibiotic-free beef from its “Open Prairie Natural Meats” brand will be limited starting in 2025.

Raising cattle without any antibiotics might reduce that one expense but it drives up overall production costs, similar to poultry, often leading to sicker animals, lower weights, and higher mortality. According to Lance Zimmerman, a senior animal protein analyst for Rabobank, those added expenses may not being paying off for Tyson. “Companies are under immense pressure,” Zimmerman said. To “stop the bleeding,” they are “looking at ways to navigate the marketplace, improve efficiencies at plants, deliver high quality products but in a way that makes sense.” (Sources: Meat+Poultry, Bloomberg, FoodDive)

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – June 7, 2021 : Customer selecting Tyson all natural chicken breasts from a refrigerated display case at an American grocery store supermarket.

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