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Antibiotic Chicks

big poultry farm
More than 50 billion birds a year are produced in industrial poultry hatcheries worldwide. Photograph dapd.

On January 4th, 2012 the FDA quietly prohibited the "extralabel” or unapproved use of the common (yet strong) cephalosporin class of antibiotics in cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys to be effective April 5, 2012. The FDA says it is taking this action to preserve the effectiveness of cephalosporin drugs for treating disease in humans, for it has been noted that as cephalosporin use increases in animal agriculture, human effectiveness diminishes.1 Cephalosporin antibiotics are a stronger cousin to penicillins. Doctors currently use cephalosporins to treat pneumonia, strep throat, tonsillitis, bronchitis, urinary tract infections and to prevent bacterial infection before, during, and after surgery.

Currently, unapproved use and abuse of antibiotics for food-intended animals is common practice. Sources say, some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are being fed or injected into cattle, pigs and poultry on industrial factory farms.2

One such unstudied and unapproved use of cephalosporins in food-intended animals, is their injection into poultry eggs. Although the FDA has approved the use of cephalosporins on animal farms for various specific veterinary purposes, such as curing an existing infection, the unapproved or “extra-label” use of cephalosporins, to suppress potential future infection, by injecting doses into chicken eggs just before the eggs hatch, has become widespread.

Every five weeks, a large poultry farm sees a delivery of newly hatched chicks (which have been mechanically injected with a third generation cephalosporin just prior to hatching). The chicks are then rapidly fattened with a feed laced with low-dose antibiotics, most likely amoxycillin and tetracycline, which are currently allowed in animal feed and will continue to be allowed in feed by the FDA.3 When the chicks reach three and a half pounds they are sent off for slaughter. Years ago, it took two months to fatten up a chicken, today they can eat their way to 3.5 pounds in just 33 days. Today's low dose antibiotics are the reason the birds are bulking up so quickly. Upon exit of the chickens, the floor of the once crowded pen is cleaned for the first time in over five weeks, the month plus of excrement that the birds have been sleeping and sitting in from day two of their lives, is scraped away, and the process repeats itself. These are the types of conditions that set in motion the use of preventative antibiotics.

The FDA has taken a bold and much needed first step to reign in antibiotic use. FDA officials, scientists and physicians have been warning for years that antibiotics in agriculture pose a "serious public health threat" and action needs to be taken on the issue, but no concrete steps to limit the drugs had been taken until the January 4th announcement.

Another way to decrease antibiotic use on factory farms is to reduce demand. There appear to be three options: become a vegetarian, buy from a local, sustainable, humane farmer, or, for those who are capable, start your own small scale hatchery or poultry farm! The number of people dependent on big industry would decrease, and many a chicken and turkey would lead a more dignified life.

While we've all heard that over-prescription of antibiotics to people is one cause of resistance, another major cause is due to the unrestricted use of antibiotics on factory farms. And not just when animals are sick: healthy animals are fed antibiotics every day because it makes them grow bigger, faster. Marketplace tests 100 samples of chicken for antibiotic resistant strains of sakmonella.

The U.S. animal farming industry consumes over 30 million pounds of antibiotics per year

Antibiotic use on U.S. livestock in 2010:  Cephalosporins- 54,207 pounds (24,588 kilograms),  Penicillins- 1.9 million pounds (870,948 kg),  Tetracyclines- 12.3 million pounds (5.6 million kg).

The use of penicillin and tetracyclines – the fattening drugs the F.D.A. has chosen not to regulate – increased 43 percent and 21 percent from 2009 to 2010. In anticipation of the new law, the use of cephalosporins dropped 41 percent from 2009 to 2010.3





Leverstein-van Hall, MA et al. Dutch patients, retail chicken meat and poultry share the same ESBL genes, plasmids and strains. Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 2011.

Pappas, G. An Animal Farm Called ESBL: Antimicrobial resistance as a zoonosis. Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 2011.

Further Reading:

About cephalosporins:

FDA Press Release:

In Germany, although non-therapeutic use of antibiotics has been banned - conditions are poor:






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