Sanderson Farms to phase out medically important antibiotics

The nation's third-largest chicken producer announced today that it will stop using medically important antibiotics for disease prevention in its live poultry operations.

In a press release, Sanderson Farms said it would discontinue use of the antibiotics gentamycin and virginiamycin to prevent disease in its chickens by Mar 1, 2019. Gentamycin is on the World Health Organization list of most essential medicines.

"As we have stated many times, we and our veterinary team are committed to the judicious use of antibiotics in our birds," company chairman and CEO Joe Sanderson said in the release. "The change we are announcing today is consistent with this commitment and with our dedication to antibiotic stewardship and animal welfare."

Keeping pace with other large producers

Up until today's announcement, Sanderson Farms was the only large US chicken producer that had not committed to curbing the use of medically important antibiotics in its operations. Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride, and Perdue have all begun phasing out the use of medically important antibiotics in their chicken in recent years, in response to growing consumer demand and concern that the use of medically important antibiotics in chickens and other food animals is contributing to antibiotic resistance.

Perdue has gone a step further by eliminating use of all antibiotics, even those not considered medically important.

In fact, the move is something of a surprise given that Sanderson Farms has taken an openly skeptical stance on raising chicken without medically important antibiotics, calling the "antibiotic-free" label a marketing gimmick and starting an advertising campaign to defend its use of antibiotics. The company has also downplayed the consequences of antibiotic use in poultry production.

"There is not any credible science that leads us to believe we're causing antibiotic resistance in humans," Sanderson president and chief operating officer Lampkin Butts told the New York Times in 2016.

Some of the company's shareholders felt differently, however. According to reporting by Reuters, 43% of Sanderson Farms shareholders in February 2018 voted to back a proposal urging the company to stop using medically important antibiotics for disease prevention.

The company says the decision is in response to an independent study by an advisory panel of poultry production and veterinary experts commissioned earlier this year to review its antibiotic program. While the study found no misuse of antibiotics at Sanderson Farms and stated that "it is not possible to estimate with a high level of confidence the true risk to human health posed by antibiotic use practices in poultry production," the advisory panel concluded that moving to non-medically important antibiotics for disease prevention "could represent a responsible compromise to better preserve efficacy of antibiotics important for human health."

Consumer groups welcome the move

Matthew Wellington, antibiotics program director for US PIRG, called the decision a "welcome change."

"Given Sanderson's historic opposition to reducing antibiotic use, today's announcement is encouraging and shows that the company realizes it's no longer acceptable to dose healthy chickens with antibiotics important to human health," Wellington said in a statement.

"As one of the nation's biggest chicken producers, Sanderson Farms' antibiotic practices have a big impact," David Wallinga, MD, a senior health officer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement emailed to reporters. "Curbing overuse of these life-saving drugs will help keeping them working when sick people or animals truly need them."

Wallinga added that third-party verification will be needed to ensure the company is living up to its promise.

See also:

Nov 30 Sanderson Farms press release

Nov 30 US PIRG press release

Feb 21 Reuters article

Aug 1, 2016, New York Times article

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