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Perdue Goes (Almost) Antibiotic-Free

Chicks in the Perdue hatchery in Salisbury, Md. The company  says that it is now raising all of its chickens without routine antibiotics. Only those flocks that get sick, about 5 percent of all birds, will be treated.
Dan Charles
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Most of America's poultry producers have been promising to cut back on the use of antibiotics in recent years. One of them, however, has consistently led the way. Perdue Farms, based on Maryland's Eastern Shore, began getting rid of antibiotics from feed in 2007, eliminated the drugs from its hatcheries in 2014, and last year it announced that more than half of its chickens received no antibiotics at all.

This week, Perdue announced that it has ended the routine use of all antibiotics in its entire operation. It only resorts to the use of antibiotics when chickens are getting sick. According to the company, that happens to about 5 percent of its flocks. That leaves 95 percent of the company's production eligible to be sold under the label "no antibiotics ever."

Public health groups and government regulators are worried that overuse of antibiotics will lead to more drug-resistant infections in humans.

In response, several large poultry companies, including Tyson Foods, have promised to eliminate the use of antibiotics that also are used to treat humans. But Perdue has gone further, eliminating not just human antibiotics, but also a class of antibiotics called ionophores, which aren't used to treat people. (Ionophores are actually toxic to humans.)

Jim Perdue, the company's chairman, says Perdue Farms is eliminating all antibiotics, including ionophores, for marketing reasons. "Our consumers have already told us they want chicken raised without any antibiotics," he said in a statement.

In addition to Perdue and Tyson Foods, the poultry companies Foster Farms and Pilgrim's Pride (owned by the Brazilian company JBS) also have promised to reduce their use of antibiotics.

Bucking the trend, though, is Sanderson Farms. It ran advertisements earlier this year that ridiculed the term "raised without antibiotics" as a meaningless marketing gimmick. A publicist representing Sanderson Farms wrote in an email to NPR that "we can no longer sit idle while our competitors dupe consumers into believing one product is healthier than another or bait them into paying more money for the same product through the use of misleading labels and questionable marketing practices."

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Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.