Farmers and consumers chicken out on antibiotics
Canadians are eating chicken at record levels but have a complicated relationship with the way our poultry is produced. Farmers are addressing the problem.
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Consumers have a conflicted relationship with chicken produced in this country.
On one hand, chicken is being devoured at record levels. In the past five years, per capita consumption here has climbed to 32.5 kg from 29.7 kg. It’s a trend: we’ve been steadily eating more chicken here since the 1960s, when per capita consumption was just 10 kg.
Why so much?
Well, among other reasons, chicken is versatile, affordable, nutritious, low in fat and high in quality.
Yet despite growing consumption, we repeatedly question farmers’ approach to chicken production. This is due in part to scurrilous fast food campaigns that imply competitors’ chicken is saddled with all kinds of nasty things, such as antibiotics or hormones.
The hormone accusation is a red herring. Canadian chicken hasn’t received hormones in more than a half century.
Antibiotics, though, are another story. And farmers are addressing it.
Here’s the story. In just 39 days, chickens grow from 35-gram chicks to 2.35-kilogram market-size chickens. That’s a result of years of research into breeding, feed and behaviour. As well, chickens are excellent at converting their feed into muscle. But they need to stay healthy to realize such growth.
Farmers discovered ages ago that chickens given a small preventative dose of antibiotics grow faster and have less disease problems than those raised antibiotic free.
Antibiotics also reduce salmonella and camplyobacter bacteria in the chickens’ intestines. These bacteria are harmful to humans; during processing, they can be released, contaminating the carcass and making people sick.
Chickens receive no antibiotics in the last fifth of their lives. In that way, their systems can clear out whatever residual antibiotics are there.
But through the years, repeated antibiotic use has resulted in some bacteria developing resistance.
Efforts are underway to address the problem. In 2014, Canadian chicken farmers stopped using Category I antibiotics. In July, they announced they were discontinuing Category 2, and further, that they’d stop using Category 3 by the end of 2020.
After that, they’ll use them only as therapeutics, when a chicken gets sick.
They’re also trying alternatives, such as poultry probiotics developed by a team led by Prof. Shayan Sharif at the University of Guelph.
Probiotics are preventative medicine, made from the microbes that naturally inhabit the chicken’s gut. They get mixed with chickens’ feed or water. Chickens that consume them benefit from enhanced disease immunity and better health.
Sharif, founder of the national Poultry Health Research Network, figures his poultry probiotics are about 2-3 years away from market, pending timely government approval.
Meanwhile, chicken farmers like Dennis Steinwand of Sherwood Park, Alberta, are working out ways to cope with consumer pressure. Steinwand produces 100,000 chickens about seven times a year, and welcomes access to new production approaches that are more consumer friendly.
“Farmers look forward to research-based technologies like probiotics,” he says. “We’re a family farm and we care about the wellbeing of our animals. We’re constantly fighting a public perception that agriculture is bad, and on an emotional level, that’s challenging.”
Super Size Me 2: Where's the beef?
Canada’s chicken industry was expecting a dust up when Super Size Me 2 debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. In it, star Morgan Spurlock goes underground to start a fast food chicken franchise. Critics said ho hum. Unlike the original, which beat up McDonald’s, the focus is less intense.