How Perdue Switched to Antibiotic-free Chicken

By: Tove K. Danovich

Perdue is an unusual company.

But not by the numbers. Just like its competitor, Tyson, Perdue processes more than 10 million birds a week. In 2013, the company had roughly $6 billion in sales of chicken, much of which is sold, wrapped in plastic, under the florescent light of supermarkets.

Perdue also isn’t unusual in its struggle to defend its operating model in the face of an increasingly locavore nation. Late last year, Perdue suffered a PR nightmare when a contract farmer allowed a video crew to view his farm and see deformed chickens in confined spaces.

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture. Licensed under CC

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture. Licensed under CC

So how is Perdue unusual? As millions of customers were turning away from just that kind of factory farming, Perdue embarked on a 10-year effort to remove antibiotics from its chicken supply, a move which will have a profound ripple effects on the food supply chain.

While even after a decade, Perdue still hasn’t quite kicked antibiotics, in July the company announced that more than half of its chickens are raised without human or animal antibiotics. Earlier this month, Perdue made headlines again when they acquired Niman Ranch, the all-natural pork supplier of Chipotle, among other restaurants.

How is Perdue stepping into the all-natural, no-antibiotic food space? Well, they’ve been at it for a while.

Back in 2002, the company began to take note of consumer concerns over the use of antibiotics in their meat. “You could tell animal agriculture had maybe gotten a little carried away with their approach to antibiotics,” says Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of Food Safety, Quality, and Live Operations at Perdue. Not only were farmers using antibiotics to treat sick animals, but antibiotics were also applied along with vaccinations, as well as in feed. The FDA estimated that in 2009, 61 percent of medically important antibiotics (i.e., those used for human health) were being used in animal agriculture. As a result, drug-resistant strains of bacteria were on the rise.

But, as Stewart-Brown points, getting antibiotics out of Perdue’s supply wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Removing them all at once would have incurred significant cost in both expense and animal health. “If you don’t prepare your system to act differently, then your system will show you some significant flareups,” he says. To begin the process, they looked at the four ways that chicken companies use antibiotics: in the hatchery, in feed for growth promotion and illness prevention, any use of ionophores that have no medical use for humans, and for specifically treating sick animals. The next step was to figure out what, exactly, they needed to do to safely remove those antibiotics from each stage of the chicken’s life.

By simply looking at the major changes Perdue made to remove antibiotic use in the hatchery, it quickly becomes clear why removing these drugs is more a matter of time and commitment than anything else. Even if their competitors wanted to move toward 100 percent antibiotic-free flocks tomorrow, they would also have to look at their supply chain.

The first step for Perdue was altering the protocols for the breeders in terms of their care and handling of the eggs. Not only did Perdue create a report card for each breeder, Stewart-Brown says, “We were more critical of the condition of the egg coming into the hatchery.” Rather than the wet rags they had used to wipe off eggs with visible dirt, they switched to single-use baby wipes.

Perdue also had to change the way their employees mixed vaccines for the chicks at the hatchery. In the past, workers mixed the vaccinations in the middle of the hatchery where there was a high risk of contamination by bacteria in the air. They built separate rooms specifically for this purpose and added fume hoods over each mixing station to further prevent any bacteria from getting into the vaccines.

The process of removing antibiotics isn’t really about the drugs so much as making the environment cleaner and treading more cautiously, and this more holistic method is the only way to do it inexpensively but with long-term success, Stewart-Brown says.

During the last 13 years, the look and feel of the entire Perdue operation changed. Taking out the antibiotics is the first step of a bigger process that will improve quality a mass scale. “It wakes up the part of the company that gets in tune with the chicken,” Stewart-Brown says, adding, “You can see it in us and the folks that work in live operations throughout the company. Whatever they were thinking about a chicken 10 years ago — that’s definitely not how they think about chickens today.”