1 November 2017


Big Chicken
How did chicken take over the world’s diet? Industrial farming is a big part of it. But secret sauce is 63,000 tons of antibiotics every year. This insight comes from Maryn McKenna in her new book – Big Chicken. Before those innovations, hens were just leftovers from egg production and “a chicken in every pot” was an empty political promise reports ConscienHealth’s Ted Kyle.

When you put antibiotics in a chicken’s food, they grow big and fat. So farmers can make an abundant supply of plump chickens on an industrial scale. Now, Americans eat far more chicken than any other meat. And farms dump millions of pounds of antibiotics into the environment. Most of it goes into chicken manure, which in turn becomes fertilizer for plant crops. The circle of farm life has become a circle of antibiotics. McKenna tells the story of Acronized® chicken from the 1950s. American Cyanamid promoted – and trademarked – its chicken soaked in antibiotics for a longer shelf life: They dipped all the chicken in the US in a bath of antibiotics and sealed it up in packages and thought it would last for a month on the shelf and people could eat it and be fine? Were they crazy? To me that story was really the purest distillation of this uncomplicated belief that science was going to make our lives better.

The problem goes beyond antibiotic resistant superbugs. Dumping all these antibiotics into the environment raises the possibility of contributing to the rise of obesity prevalence. Lee Riley and colleagues explained this theory in a 2013 paper. They estimate that as much as 18 million pounds of antibiotics from animal farming go into the environment. They describe evidence for how antibiotics can move from environment and into the food chain. And thus, they explain the possible link to obesity: “We propose that chronic exposures to low-residue antimicrobial drugs in food could disrupt the equilibrium state of intestinal microbiota and cause dysbiosis that can contribute to changes in body physiology. The obesity epidemic in the United States may be partly driven by the mass exposure of Americans to food containing low-residue antimicrobial agents.”

Ultimately, McKenna sees hope in the story of big chicken and antibiotics. Business, economics, and regulators might have failed. But consumers are succeeding. People are demanding chicken produced without antibiotics. McDonald’s is making a big move in that direction. In turn, it’s exerting a big influence on the rest of the industry.

The move away from antibiotics in chicken can be a case study for beef and pork production. Consumer demand for antibiotic-free meat is growing. Even in China, government is pushing for changes in meat production. It’s a work in progress.