Advocates for ending the non-medical use of antibiotics in livestock hope a recent decision by six big-city school districts to procure antibiotic-free chicken will encourage changes in farming practices.
As it is, however, chicken raised without antibiotics represented less than 3 percent of the market in 2013, said Tom Super, the National Chicken Council’s vice president of communications. The percentage likely increased this year, he said.
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Unified School District and districts in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Miami-Dade, and Orlando, Fla., announced they would apply an antibiotic-free standard for companies to follow when supplying chicken products to its schools.
The districts, which make up the Urban School Food Alliance, plan to purchase only chickens that were raised on an all-vegetarian diet, were humanely raised according to guidelines set out by the National Chicken Council and were never given antibiotics to promote growth or to prevent illnesses in tight quarters.
The announcement should shake the entire food industry, said Jonathan Kaplan, food and agriculture director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.
“This decision will send a strong ripple through the system,” Kaplan said. “It will provide a powerful example for other institutional food buyers. You’re going to see the same standards ... at ballparks, museums, national parks. You’re already seeing it in restaurant chains.
“This provides yet another call for action to the industry to innovate its production system so they don’t need antibiotics day after day,” he said.
Super isn’t so sure the announcement will have a major impact, he said in an email. For one thing, the Urban School Food Alliance is not a buying cooperative, he said.
“Schools may agree to follow this standard, but will negotiate and purchase food independently,” he said. “This suggested standard does not change the current USDA National School Lunch Program specifications, which do not restrict the use of antibiotics ... in food animals.”
Last year, of the nearly 8 billion chickens produced in the United States, only 226 million — or 2.84 percent — were raised antibiotic-free, according to USDA data. Only 19 million, or 0.23 percent, were raised organic.
Use of the term “antibiotic-free” is misleading anyway, according to the chicken council, because federal rules require any antibiotics used on the farm to have cleared the animals’ systems before they can be processed. So any chicken in a grocery store or school lunch must be antibiotic-free, even if it was raised conventionally.
In the broiler chicken industry, a majority of the antibiotics employed by growers are not used in human medicine and don’t have the potential for increasing resistance in humans, NCC vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs Ashley Peterson has said.
The school districts’ decision is the latest example of a trend in which more scrutiny is being placed on the use of antibiotics in livestock, as antibiotic-resistant bacteria concerns health professionals, lawmakers and consumers.
A year ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked pharmaceutical companies to stop labeling drugs important to treating illness in humans as acceptable for growth promotion in animals. Recently, Chipotle and Chick-fil-A were among restaurant chains that announced their intentions to switch to antibiotic-free chicken.
“I think the market was headed there anyway,” said Urban School Food Alliance chairman Eric Goldstein, chief executive officer of the New York City Department of Education’s school support services division.
“We’re not the first group to come out and want this,” Goldstein said. “I know that Chick-fil-A is out there. When you have the retail market and the quick-service restaurants moving in that direction, what was missing was a signal that school food wants to move in that direction.”
While Goldstein acknowledges the Alliance schools “don’t speak for the whole market,” he believes they can be influential. Member schools procure more than $550 million in food and supplies annually and serve nearly 2.9 million students daily, according to the Alliance.
If a food company can’t supply the full volume of antibiotic-free chicken right away, it will be asked to write a plan stating when it can supply the full amount, according to a news release. In the meantime, companies will be asked to supply chicken that’s been certified by the USDA as having been given antibiotics for therapeutic purposes only, the release states.
Super said the National Chicken Council shares the Alliance’s goal of providing safe and healthful food to schoolchildren, but “we strongly caution against food trends that are not fully supported by science, will introduce higher costs into the food system, and offer no benefit to public health.”