Petaluma Poultry in the hills north of San Francisco is the kind of place most people might like to imagine their chicken dinner comes from. Free-range chickens meander in a shaded outdoor area, picking for worms and bugs, while a sea of week-old chicks skitters and chirps underfoot inside a barn, with lots of room to roam.
It feels like some quaint little organic farm. But Petaluma sends a quarter of a million birds every week to supermarkets like Costco, Kroger and Trader Joe’s. And they do it without a staple of modern industrial animal farming — antibiotics.
Most poultry and livestock producers these days rely heavily on antibiotics to promote growth and prevent the diseases that can come with lots of animals raised together in close quarters. They’re cheap and effective — so cheap and effective that nearly 80 percent of antibiotics used in the US are put in animal feed.
But scientists say overuse of the drugs is contributing to a huge global problem — growing resistance to antibiotics that are crucial to human health. The World Health Organization says it threatens the achievements of modern medicine, and calls are increasing to do something about it.
Here in the US, legislation to clamp down on the use of antibiotics in farm animals has gone nowhere in Congress, but change is nonetheless rippling through the industry, at places like Petaluma.
Rancher Mike Leventini says Petaluma follows basic principles that allow it to raise millions of birds without antibiotics.
“You spend more on fuel to heat the chicken houses,” Leventini says, ticking off items on the company’s list of practices. “You keep the litter dry, you keep fresh air in the barn, you keep light in the barn, you let them go outside. You are doing all these things to keep the birds from getting sick.”
It sounds like a stark alternative to the standard big corporate approach. But it turns out it is the big corporate approach. Petaluma Poultry is owned by the iconic chicken producer Perdue, whose homey pitchman Frank Perdue made it famous back in the ‘70s. Over the last few years, Perdue has been gobbling up antibiotic free and organic producers and is now the largest antibiotic free chicken producer in the US.
By its most recent estimate, about 15 percent of Perdue’s business is now antibiotic free.
And they’re not alone. The fast food chain Chick Fil A recently committed to going totally antibiotic free within five years. Other industry giants are also trying to reposition themselves on the issue.
And then there are fast-growing players like Chipotle. The upstart burrito chain is so gung-ho about antibiotic free that they produced a controversial animated video with a Fionna Apple soundtrack that shows factory farmed animals being pumped up with growth promoting antibiotics. The video has 13 million YouTube views.
Perdue Vice President Bruce Stewart-Brown says part of the reason his company has embraced antibiotic-free is because of what they’re hearing from their customers on social media.
“They do not trust, or have some concern about why companies would use them, especially inappropriately, in their mind.” Stewart-Brown says.
So with consumers leading the way, are antibiotics on their way out of the diet of American chickens and other farm animals?
Not quite, says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union.
Consumers are starting to have an impact, Halloran says, “but consumer action alone is not going to get us 100 percent of where we need to go.”
Consumers Union has been pushing for stiffer regulations on antibiotic use in animals for decades. But the efforts have run into stiff opposition from the pharmaceutical and livestock industries. The strongest action the US government has been able to muster is a call last December by the Food and Drug Administration for a voluntary ban on antibiotics being used for growth promotion.
It’s been a different story in Europe, where governments have taken stronger action. But of course microbes know no boundaries, which is why British Prime Minister David Cameron recently called for more international coordination on the issue.
“It’s a very, very serious problem,” Cameron told the BBC in a recent interview, “one that we absolutely have to grip. We have to grip it globally because this is a problem that’s going to affect every country in the world.”
Cameron warned that antibiotic resistance could lead the world back to the dark ages of medicine, and he said Britain would head up an international effort to tackle the problem.
But even that effort would fall short without significant change in countries like China and the US. Which brings us back to the slow evolution of the American market.
“We think we are going to get somewhere,” says New York Representative Louise Slaughter, “but it’s going to take an outcry of the population.”
Slaughter is the only microbiologist in Congress and she’s been pushing a bill to clamp down on antibiotics in animals for a decade.
She says growing consumer consciousness is making a difference. She points to support for national standards from 10 city councils, including Chicago, and adds that the national PTA “is saying what we want for school lunches, and we don't want antibiotic-soaked food.”
But the percentage of the U.S. meat market that’s antibiotic free is still likely less than five percent. So while she continues to push for legislation, Slaughter is also pressuring industry giants like McDonalds to join industry upstarts like Chipotle and Perdue’s Petaluma Poultry and make a global pledge to stop using antibiotics in its meat.