Chicken antibiotics are a common and very controversial topic of discussion in the poultry world. Even just as consumers, we are often told not to buy chicken from major store chains because “they are full of antibiotics” and “aren’t healthy” because the large-scale chicken farms are giving their chickens antibiotics.
Isn’t this what chicken producers are supposed to do, however? We give people human medicine when they are dealing with viral or bacterial infections, should we be doing the same with our livestock? And, if so, what is so bad about antibiotics for chickens, should consumers be careful where they buy chicken meat from, and should farmers and backyard chicken keepers give their poultry antibiotics?
Why are there antibiotics for chickens?
In principle, antibiotics for chickens are exactly what they sound like – medicines given to poultry to treat infections from various viruses and pathogenic bacteria. In practice, however, that’s not the type of chicken antibiotics people are talking about when they are warning about the antibiotics for chickens used by factory farms.
Instead, what’s usually referred are the antibiotics the chicken industry pumps into their flocks on a daily basis through their drinking water and animal feed. This is done for two general reasons:
1. As growth promoters
Together with growth hormones, these are supposed to fasten the chicken’s body weight gain so that it can be led to slaughter sooner. Such antibiotics work in several ways – by modifying the intestinal microflora of the birds, decreasing the microbial competition, reducing the subclinical infection rate, enhancing the absorption of nutrients, and in more minute ways.
It’s worth noting that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has introduced certain limitations and regulations on such antibiotics over the years, including rules against antibiotics that are deemed “medically important” to humans. What exactly is medically important or detrimental to humans is still widely debated, however, and the exact ways in which some chicken antibiotics work aren’t even 100% understood yet.
2. To prevent and treat infections
This can seem self-evident at first but it bears elaboration in this case. While antibiotics are typically meant for disease prevention and treatment, when it comes to factory-grown chickens antibiotics are used daily simply to keep them alive in otherwise unlivable conditions.
That’s because, unlike in the wild where chickens easily live over a decade or more with no medications, in a chicken factory farm, many birds can’t survive even a few months without being stuffed full of antibiotics every day because of the tiny confinements they are crammed in.
In that sense, antibiotics for chickens in factory farms can be seen as little more than assisted living. At this point, there are countless videos and even documentary films about the horrors of being raised in a poultry factory farm. Check out this one, for example, if you’re feeling up to it.
And this is important for more than just moral reasons too since, even if you don’t pay too much to the well-being of poultry birds, the antibiotics they are given eventually end up in our bodies too.
Which antibiotics are most commonly used in chicken factory farms?
The exact types of antibiotics used in your state or country will vary depending on that area’s regulations and those also tend to change year on year. Overall, however, for the US, most of the antibiotics approved for poultry production are the following. You can also find a detailed breakdown of most of them in the Poultry Extension.
- Aminoglycosides such as gentamycin, neomycin, spectinomycin, streptomycin, and others are used to treat intestinal infections
- Bambermycins and flavophospholipol are used to stop the synthesis of the cell walls of bacteria
- Beta-lactams come in two types, either cephalosporins or penicillins – both are used for bacterial infections
- Doxycycline is a broad-spectrum antibiotic that treats bacterial and systemic infections such as Chlamydia, Mycoplasma, Pasteurella, Psittacosis, Ornithosis, and others such as some protozoa
- Fluoroquinolones are antibacterial agents that are effective against colibacillosis, salmonellosis, pseudomonas aeruginosa infections, fowl cholera, and others
- Ionophores are feed additives used to prevent intestinal infections such as Coccidiosis
- Lincosamides are antimicrobials that are mostly used to combat joint and bone infections
- Macrolides are used to treat various bacterial infections, including the potentially fatal necrotic enteritis
- Quinolones are broad-spectrum drugs that treat different types of bacteria by inhibiting their function and procreation
- Streptogramins are used against vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE) by preventing their protein synthesis
- Sulfonamides are broad-spectrum antibiotics that prevent various pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and others
As you can see, the list of antibiotics for chickens that are regularly used is pretty long – the ones we’ve mentioned above are just the most commonly used ones at the time of writing this article. So, unfortunately, going over each and every type of antibiotic medicine individually isn’t feasible for most people, especially since the research behind most of them isn’t all that conclusive anyway.
This uncertainty is why it’s typically recommended that people buy eggs only from smaller farmers and homesteaders as well as that said small farmers use antibiotics for chickens as sparingly as possible. But, let’s get into a bit more specifics on what exactly are the drawbacks of antibiotics for chickens below.
What are the drawbacks of giving antibiotics to chickens?
The first and most significant drawback of overusing antibiotics for chickens is the same as the danger of overprescribing antibiotics to people – antibiotic resistance. In short, this is what happens when antibiotics are used so often that the bacteria and viruses they are meant for develop resistance to the antibiotics too quickly.
In principle, this is something that would happen regardless as it’s just the natural course of bacterial evolution. As with any other example of natural selection, the few bacteria that occasionally survive antibiotic treatments – because they happen to be resistant to them – procreate and increase the population of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
This is bad news for humanity, however, because it means that antibiotics get less and less effective over time, and we’re at risk of eventually facing “superbug” infections that are virtually untreatable.
If this is all but inevitable eventually, however, what’s the problem with antibiotics for chickens? The problem is that by overstuffing both chickens and ourselves with antibiotics, we are speeding up the process of bacteria and viruses developing antibiotic resistance. So, instead of this happening decades and centuries down the line, it’s now right around the corner for us and threatens human health.
In fact, for many infections such as pneumonia, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and others, antibiotic resistance is already an issue, according to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) – such infections are already much harder to deal with than just a few years ago because they are resistant to our antibiotics.
It’s estimated that some 700,000 people die each year from infections that were easily treatable a while ago but are now resistant to antibiotics. That number is expected to rise to over 10 million people per year by 2050.
In addition to antibiotic resistance, while, antibiotics that are deemed “medically important to humans” are supposedly banned, a lot of the ones that are still used have contentious studies about their side effects on people. Additionally, people consuming medicated poultry meat is also a problem because we can consume antibiotic-resistant bacteria directly with the meat, which is a whole different problem.
Isn’t the use of antibiotics in chicken factory farms regulated?
Antibiotic use is technically regulated, of course. For example, factory farms are supposed to make sure that all antibiotics are flushed from the chickens’ bodies before the birds are slaughtered and processed. Both the FDA and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service are also supposed to monitor poultry meat and eggs for trace amounts of drugs too.
Another form of regulation is the US Food and Drug Administration’s Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) #213 which stipulates that small-scale farmers and backyard chicken keepers can’t buy water-soluble antibiotics without a prescription from the FDA since January 1, 2017. In other words, this class of antibiotics can’t be bought freely over the counter without a prescription from a licensed veterinarian.
The FDA is also working on a framework meant to help tackle antimicrobial resistance and incentivize poultry producers to voluntarily transition away from overusing antibiotics for poultry growth promotion.
While great in principle, the problem here is that we are talking about an exclusively voluntary incentivization rather than a mandatory regulation.
This, as expected, is an incredibly slow and ineffective process as the largest poultry factory farms simply have no interest in voluntarily abandoning antibiotics for chickens, regardless of the minor incentives offered by the FDA – the financial incentive these factories have to simply continue ramping up their poultry production as much as possible simply can’t be rivaled by any FDA incentive.
So, while it wouldn’t be fair to say that the FDA and other federal institutions aren’t doing anything, the fact remains that the problem hasn’t been addressed adequately yet.
Should you give your chickens antibiotics as a small-scale homesteader?
All of the above makes it clear that the best course of action for consumers is to steer clear of factory-raised chickens. For small-scale farmers and homesteaders, however, the question remains – is it better to use antibiotics as much as possible or not?
The wide consensus in the medical and backyard chicken keeper communities is that backyard and homestead poultry birds should be raised and kept without the use of growth-promoting antibiotics except in cases where the use of antibiotics is necessary to halt the development of certain urgent health issues.
When backyard farmers avoid using antibiotics as much as possible, however, and instead focus on simply giving their flock a good free-range environment to grow in, as well as the highest possible quality meat and eggs.
What’s more, this also allows such farmers to sell their produce at higher prices and with labels such as “antibiotics-free”, “raised without antibiotics”, “no growth-promoting antibiotics”, “no medically important antibiotics”, “natural chicken keeping”, and so on.
In other words, even if we just look at it from a strictly business point of view, the best strategy for the small-scale homesteader or backyard chicken farmer is usually to raise their chickens as naturally as possible – this ensures the best quality of meat and eggs, the highest possible prices, and market niche.
Add the sheer satisfaction of caring for a big, healthy, and happy flock of birds in your backyard or homestead, and the answer for small-scale chicken farmers becomes rather clear.
Antibiotics for chickens are the type of topic that’s quite clear from a scientific point of view, yet the proper measures and regulations that are supposed to follow that scientific clarity continue to lag behind with years and decades. What’s more, antibiotics for chickens are just one small piece of the giant puzzle that is the barbaric large-scale poultry industry.
The silver lining about all this, however, is that homestead and backyard chicken farmers nowadays have the information and tools necessary to raise their chickens naturally, safely, efficiently, and in a completely healthy manner with no antibiotics.
What’s more, there is a growing market for antibiotic-free poultry out there. It just remains to be seen whether that market will ever become significant enough to tilt the scales against the large-scale factory farming industry.