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Chick-fil-A reverses 2014 'no antibiotics ever' pledge

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

You probably can't taste it, but there might be something different about the chicken you're eating. Chick-fil-A has announced that it will once again purchase chicken from producers who use antibiotics to treat sick animals. And this isn't a first. Last year, Tyson, the largest poultry producer in the country, announced it was dropping its No Antibiotics Ever label. Over the last 20 years or so, concern about antibiotic resistance led many meat producers to reduce or eliminate the use of antibiotics. So why are these companies changing their policies? Joining us now is Lance Price, founding director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University. Good morning. Thanks for being with us.

LANCE PRICE: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So what do you make of these companies turning away from no-antibiotics-ever policies? Why are they doing this now?

PRICE: You know, I think that the Chick-fil-A decision is a direct result of the Tyson decision that we heard earlier. It seems that Tyson was having trouble controlling some infections without antibiotics, which is a little strange because some other really big companies like Perdue have been able to control without antibiotics. So I'm not sure what the problem is there.

ELLIOTT: For decades, global health organizations have been working on combating antibiotic resistance. How much of an issue does it remain today?

PRICE: I'd say I put it second to climate change. Of course, I'm a microbiologist, and I study this all the time, but it's a huge threat to human health. And one of the foundational things that we can do to prevent risk or change our trajectory is to use antibiotics as carefully as possible, which does not include just giving them to billions of animals.

ELLIOTT: You know, antibiotics help prevent and treat diseases in poultry, but they also result in, for instance, a larger chicken. They can grow faster. How much of this decision do you think is based on economics?

PRICE: Well, I mean, I think, you know, for any of these big companies, it's probably largely economics. It's probably - you know, I have to speculate, but I would imagine that somebody did the calculations, and they figured that it was cheaper to use these inexpensive antibiotics than to, you know, do the harder things, like, you know, using better breeds of animals, cleaning the litter out of the house as providing them a better environment, you know, enriching the environment to to promote the health of the animals rather than just, you know, getting them to market weight as fast as possible. And so, yeah, it's probably just a business decision.

ELLIOTT: Do you have any advice for consumers about how they should consider this change in policy?

PRICE: Well, I want to give these guys some credit. So they are saying that they're only going to use antibiotics that are not important to human medicine, but they're still introducing these drugs that can be toxic to humans and to billions of animals, right? So my thought is that every consumer has a chance to vote for the things they believe in when they buy products, right? So when I go to the store, I vote for things like free-range eggs and milk from cows grass-fed and, you know, chicken sandwiches from chickens that have been raised without antibiotics.

ELLIOTT: Lance Price is the founding director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASTROCOLOR'S "METEOR SHOWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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