Farmers and chicken companies accept that they have an obligation to ensure the chickens in their care are free from disease and as healthy as possible. To not treat sick birds would compromise their welfare, and potentially allow them to suffer. Disease prevention and control is likewise a key responsibility to the chickens in their care.
In order to manage disease, poultry veterinarians need to have access to appropriate tools. These tools include preventative measures, such as farm hygiene and vaccines, where they are available, but can include antibiotic / antimicrobial treatment where there is no other viable or effective solution. In such circumstances, only medicines assessed and approved by the national regulator of veterinary products (the APVMA) are used.
Most people accept that if animals, including chickens, need to be treated to ensure their health and welfare, then they should be treated. However, there are several reasonable concerns shared by both the community and the chicken industry with respect to the use of antibiotics in food producing animals which the industry is keenly aware of and careful to address in its practices. The two primary and very different concerns are, firstly, the possibility for residues in meat and, secondly, the potential for use in animals to contribute to resistance in antibiotics that are important in treating diseases or infections in humans.
What are antibiotic residues and what does the chicken industry do to prevent them?
An antibiotic residue is a small amount of antibiotic that remains in the edible tissues of a treated animal after the main part has gone or been used or excreted.
Residues are managed by the use of withholding periods, to ensure that antibiotics have been sufficiently degraded and/or metabolised by the animal before they are slaughtered for human consumption. Several antibiotics used in poultry are not absorbed from the gut and do not leave residues and no withholding period is necessary.
The practice of enforcing appropriate withholding periods ensures there are no unsafe residues in meat or other products destined for sale for human consumption.
To confirm this, the chicken industry participates in the National Residue Survey, a government managed monitoring program that tests chicken samples for antibiotic residues to ensure that Australian standards are met. The National Residue Survey is managed by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources on behalf of a range of agricultural industries, including the chicken meat industry.
Consumers can therefore be confident that they are not being exposed to risks from antibiotic residues when eating Australian chicken meat.
What’s antimicrobial resistance and how does the chicken industry help prevent it?
Antimicrobials are a broader class of medicines that includes antibiotics. Antimicrobial refers to any type of product or compound that is active against (ie kills or inhibits the growth of) a variety of microorganisms, which could include bacteria, fungi and parasites. Antibiotics are a sub-set of antimicrobials, in that they are specifically active against bacteria that cause disease in humans or animals.
Some microorganisms (including bacteria) are naturally resistant to certain antimicrobial medicines. However, some microorganisms which were originally susceptible to an antimicrobial medicine, such as an antibiotic, can acquire resistance to the medicine through exposure to it. Once this happens, this particular antimicrobial medicine may be ineffective in treating an infection caused by that microorganism.
In collaboration with the Australian Government’s Department of Agriculture and Water Resources’ Animal Biosecurity and Response Reform Program, the industry participated in a national survey of antimicrobial resistance in Australian meat chickens.
The survey represents the most comprehensive data set to date on the level of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) found in bacteria in Australian meat chicken flocks. The results show the Australian chicken meat industry is in an enviable position globally with low and improved levels of AMR and, importantly, low levels of resistance to antimicrobials that are priorities for use in human health. This has been achieved due to the industry’s long-standing program of responsible use of antibiotics.
The chicken industry also takes its role in preventing antimicrobial resistance development very seriously. The ACMF has coordinated an antimicrobial usage survey of the six major Australian chicken companies with data collected since 2017, and provides context for the data with an ‘Appropriateness of Use Survey’ repeated annually.
The chicken meat industry agreed back in 2007 that if antibiotics were to be used at all, they must only be used for therapeutic purposes (to treat, control or prevent disease). They are not to be used for growth promotion.
Furthermore, no antibiotics that have been determined by the World Health Organisation to be critically important in human medicine are used routinely in chicken production.
In addition, most antibiotics classified as the highest priority for human health aren’t registered for use in poultry in Australia and are therefore not used at all.
The major chicken meat companies in Australia have put in place antibiotic stewardship programs to ensure antibiotics are only ever used judiciously and responsibly.
The aim of these programs is to minimise animal disease and suffering while also ensuring judicious use of antimicrobials that minimises antimicrobial resistance development, thereby preserving their effectiveness for humans and animals alike.