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Additional Facts on Chicken Health and Production

by 5m Editor
12 October 2010, at 9:18a.m.

US - The "Dr Oz" TV programme on 7 October 2010, raised some questions about chicken production practices. Comments by the National Chicken Council were shown briefly during the programme. Additional information on the topics raised is shown below.

The most important facts are:

  • Fresh chicken is a wholesome, safe, nutritious food that is produced and processed under government regulations.
  • Nothing is given to chickens that is not approved by the US Food & Drug Administration.
  • Like all fresh (raw) meat and poultry, chicken may have bacteria on it, but these are easily killed by the heat of normal cooking.

Here are some questions raised by the show and the answers to them.

What is the purpose of antibiotics in chicken feed?

When used, antibiotics are used to maintain good health in the animals, prevent or control infections in the birds, or to treat sick birds. When a flock has to be treated – which does not occur often – the antibiotics or other animal health product is usually delivered through the drinking water. Products added to feed are used at low levels and are intended to promote health maintenance and prevention of disease.

Antibiotics are not used in all flocks. When used in poultry, antibiotics are used in a safe and responsible manner in keeping with principles of judicious use and regulations of the US Food & Drug Administration.

Use of antibiotics and other animal health products is controlled by the companies who own the birds. Individual chicken farmers are not allowed to use these products on their own.

A withdrawal period is observed to ensure that no antibiotic residues are present when the birds go to processing. The withdrawal period mandated by FDA is included in the directions for every product.

Usage of antibiotics varies considerably, depending on company policies, health status of the flock, and disease conditions in the area, among other factors.

Does the use of antibiotics in chickens cause problems with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans?

Some bacteria have become resistance to antibiotics because of the very widespread use of antibiotics in humans, not animals.

On the Dr Oz show, one of the guests talked about bacteria that are resistant to certain antibiotics. However, this is a natural phenomenon. Ciprofloxacin, ampicillin, and amoxicillin were mentioned, but these are not used in chickens at all, so obviously any resistance that occurs to them cannot be connected to chickens. The very extensive use of ciprofloxacin, ampicillin, and amoxicillin in human medicine is the likely cause of bacterial resistance to them.

The fact is that no scientific study has ever shown that a treatment failure in humans has resulted from the use of antibiotics in chickens. Statements about the amount of antibiotics used in poultry production are greatly exaggerated when they include certain animal health products that are used only in animals and are not used in humans at all. These products have no effect on antibiotic resistance in humans.

Chicken is safe. Any bacteria that may be on raw chicken are easily killed by the heat of normal cooking.

Is arsenic used in raising chickens?

Chicken are not given "arsenic." Some flocks (by no means all) are given a product that contain roxarsone, which is a molecule that includes organic (carbon-rich, pentavalent) arsenic – not the inorganic, trivalent form that is famous as a poison.

When used in poultry production, roxarsone improves bird health and animal welfare by providing control of a disease condition known as coccidiosis. This is a problem caused by coccidia, which are microscopic parasites common in poultry that can colonize the intestinal tracts of birds and, when left uncontrolled, can cause illness or death. Roxarsone also improves food safety by reducing Salmonella in broilers and improving intestinal strength leading to less contamination in processing. Roxarsone also improves efficiency of feed utilization, which supports environmental sustainability. It improves feed efficiency by improving intestinal health and allowing the animal to get more benefit from its feed.

Use of roxarsone may result in improved skin pigmentation because it promotes better gut health, which allows the naturally occurring yellow pigments in the grains and other feedstuffs to be absorbed more efficiently and deposited in the skin by the bird. However, it has no impact on the color of the meat.

Arsenic occurs naturally in foods because it occurs in soil and water and is taken up into plants and from plants into animals. Arsenic is found in a wide variety of foods.

The use of roxarsone at specified levels is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, which also sets tolerance levels for arsenic in foods. For chicken, the limit is two parts per million in liver and other edible byproducts and one-half part (0.5) per million in muscle meat. The FDA has done testing of cooked food and found arsenic at only one-twenty-fifth of the tolerance level in chicken.

A pressure group that opposes the use of roxarsone, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), performed testing of chicken parts purchased in two metropolitan areas (Minneapolis/St. Paul and San Francisco). It found arsenic in chicken at 0.0215 parts per million (21.5 parts per billion), which is also about one-twenty-fifth of the FDA tolerance level. This may be simply a background level found regardless of whether roxarsone is used in the animals. .

Products containing roxarsone are added to the feed of some flocks of chickens but by no means all. These are withdrawn no less than five days before slaughter.

Are chickens "genetically modified" to be bigger than they used to be?

Chickens are larger than they used to be, but that is largely because of improved nutrition and better animal husbandry (farm conditions). Other food animals have changed over time. Pigs are leaner and produce pork with much less fat, for example.

As far as chickens are concerned, poultry breeders have an advantage in that the generational cycle time is relatively short and improvements can be achieved in a period of years. Breeding, it should be noted very clearly, is achieved in the traditional manner. There is no "genetic engineering" in broiler chickens. Rather, there is simply selective breeding for desirable traits. These traits include hardiness, disease resistance, efficient feed conversion, and abundant white meat.

In 1960 (fifty years ago), the average broiler chicken came to market 63 days after hatch, weighing 3.35 pounds. The chicken ate 2.5 pounds of feed for each pound gained. The average flock had about six per cent mortality, that is, about six per cent of the chickens failed to survive the growout process.

In 2010, the average broiler chicken comes to market 47 days after hatch weighing 5.6 pounds. It eats 1.9 pounds of feed for each pound of weight gained. Mortality is about four per cent of the flock.

Therefore, the average chicken today is about 67 per cent bigger than the chicken of fifty years ago and comes to market in three-fourths of the time, which means the animal is at a younger and therefore more tender age. The chicken eats less feed and comes from a flock with better overall health. Except for the larger size and better health, it is the same bird. In other words, it is the production of chickens that has changed and improved, not the bird itself.

Further Reading

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