Antibiotics in poultry – facts and myths. What should I know?

We live in times when – thanks to an easy access to Internet, for example – the information, often unverified and incomplete, spread easily among people. It is also true for the subject of antibiotics in poultry and associated topics, such as hormones in poultry or poultry on GMO-feed. In truth, is poultry harmful? Haw should I select meat to be sure I buy a proper product from a controlled husbandry? Let us answer.

Antybiotyki w drobiu
Antybiotyki w drobiu

Turkey, chicken and antibiotics – what are they used for in poultry?

If you have ever spent some time in a large group of people (e.g. you have worked in a large corporation or used public transport in a big city), you know that you may easily catch an infection in such a situation. When we develop an illness, we use drugs to support our body in the fight against the infection. It is the same with animal husbandry. Turkeys or chickens living in a large group may catch infections in a similar way.

The word “antibiotic” comes from Greek words “anti”, that is against and “bios” that is life. So the name itself suggests that the effect of an antibiotic consists in inhibiting the growth and proliferation of pathogenic bacteria that entered the body. Depending on the type of active substances used in antibiotics, they affect various bacterial strains (one antibiotic may affect one or more strains). Their mass-scale use started when penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, a Scottish microbiologist (although many curious people note that the discovery had been made much earlier – in 1897 by a French military doctor – Ernest Duchesne). However, the substance was isolated as late as in 1939, and applied to treatment a year later. Thanks to the discovery of antibiotics, numerous infectious diseases do not carry the risk of death any more.

When the use of antibiotics was introduced, it was observed that in the case of livestock they had some application, other than killing bacteria. Some substances resulted in faster increase of body weight of animals they were administered to. As a result, those substances (called antimicrobial growth promoters) were added to feeds in order to increase the productivity of husbandry.

But over time it was found that the use of antibiotics may also have some side effects that were not initially foreseen. It turned out that when used excessively, they lead to development of drug-resistant bacterial strains that may endanger both animals and people, causing infections that are difficult to handle. Therefore, restrictions were placed on the use of antibiotics in poultry and other breeding animals.

However, consumers are terribly confused, especially when poultry breeding is concerned, about those substances. What are the myths and what should I know?

MYTH: Chemical substances in poultry – nobody supervises their use and poultry breeders do whatever they want. 

FACTS: The European Union has a ban on prophylactic administration of antibiotics to poultry. The only exceptions would be cases in which a disease occurs, as described below. The use of the so-called antimicrobial growth promoters is completely banned – they were withdrawn in the whole EU in 2006. Their use in breeding is severely punished. 

Antibiotics may be used only in case a bacterial disease is found in animals. Then treatment is strictly supervised by a veterinarian, and detailed documentation is kept during therapy. After the treatment is completed, a grace period is set for the birds – this is the time necessary for the body to get rid of antibiotic residues. The grace period is determined by a manufacturer of a drug and it depends on the type of antibiotics, species, age and production stage of animals. Only after the grace period has passed, any products may be manufactured out of those animals.

It is worthwhile to know that each breeder is controlled by official control authorities that are responsible for the safety of food in a given country. They randomly sample the meat for any possible antibiotic residues in animals and drinking water in which they are diluted. Moreover, the owner of the animals have to keep detailed records. 

Additional checks for residues are performed in processing plants, both as a part of existing internal procedures and by official inspection services. Therefore, each threat to the safety of the manufactured poultry is caught and the meat never enters the market. As highlighted by the National Poultry Council – Chamber of Commerce, i.e. the leading poultry sector organisation in Poland, the activity of a vast majority of poultry breeders and manufacturers is based on additional national and international quality control system, including: QAFP, QS, BRC or IFS, that require application of supplementary surveillance and independent certification of the production process, which means that they offer high-quality poultry. 

MYTH: Harmful poultry – there is a large-scale use of hormones in poultry. 

FACTS: Chickens bred in the past were smaller than the ones we buy today. They weighed about one kilogram, whilst now, in Poland, birds weighing over 2 kilograms are bred. In the USA there are even chickens that weigh about 4 kilograms.

However, it should be noted that the weight of the birds bred today is not an issue of administration of growth hormones – the use of those substances is forbidden by law – since 1981 administration of the substances that accelerate growth due to their hormonal activity to animals has been banned. Nowadays, in most farms fast-growing breeds of birds – turkeys or chickens – are kept. They are the result of decades of breeding work of zootechnicians. Additionally, the birds are fed regularly and their feed is composed in such a way that it ensures proper growth and quality of poultry. As the birds do not have to fight for food or flee from predators, they easily increase their body weight.

MYTH: The poultry fed on GMO feeds is harmful to your health. 

FACTS: GMO is surrounded by numerous myths and controversies. No wonder some consumers are afraid of the poultry fed on GMO feeds. Are they right?

They are not. For two reasons. Firstly, breeds of poultry are not a work of genetic engineering and they were not created in a laboratory. They are just a result of decades of work of breeders and zootechnicians who interbred proper breeds and developed more efficient husbandry (that is how a popular broiler breed was created).

It is a fact, however, that breeding animals, like turkeys or chickens, are fed on feeds that contain genetically modified plants. The modifications usually aim at protecting the plants from diseases or pests that could damage crops, so that it is possible to reduce the amount of plant protection products, like herbicides, pesticides or insecticides. 

Is the feed that contains GMO in any way harmful to breeding animals and people who eat their meat? This question was precisely answered by numerous experts, also in 2012 by scientists from two leading Polish scientific institutes: The National Research Institute of Animal Production in Kraków and the National Veterinary Research Institute in Puławy in the research titled “Influence of GMO feeds on animal productivity and health, transgenic DNA transfer in the digestive system and its retention in tissues and food products of animal origin”. The researchers were testing whether the products obtained from poultry that was fed on GMO feeds contain any amounts of modified DNA. It turned out that both meat and eggs from the GMO-fed poultry do not have modified DNA, therefore consumers do not have any contact with GMO at all. You may find more details on the webpage of the European Commission:

Antibiotics in poultry. How should I but meat to be sure it is safe?

How can I be sure that the poultry we buy is safe for our health? First of all, we should buy it from a reliable source. It is easier to control packed poultry, as you may find all the necessary information on the package. You should also select meat with QAFP, QS, BRC or IFS markings that suggest that the breeder has additionally adopted the already mentioned international or national quality control systems.