The health and welfare of chickens is paramount to Australian meat chicken farmers and producers, which means sometimes antibiotics are required to manage bacterial infections in chickens that were not able to be prevented or controlled by other means. Consciously allowing chickens to suffer or even die from treatable bacterial infections is not something we could ever agree with!
It seems that the majority of Australians align with this sentiment. In a recent survey[i], 81 per cent agreed that it was extremely (31 per cent), very (30 per cent) or somewhat important to them that the company making the chicken meat products that they buy has a veterinary health program in place that requires treatment for sick animals. Almost as important to them, however, was that the chicken producer has a set of principles in place that puts restrictions on the use of antibiotics (79 per cent of survey respondents said that this was extremely, very or somewhat important to them).
In accepting the principle that that chickens should be treated if they are sick, and while the majority also said that label claims stating that antibiotics had not been used in producing the chicken they buy are important to them, only 15 per cent of respondents indicated that they were not prepared to eat chicken meat from chickens which had received antibiotics for the purpose of treating disease or illness. This figure increased somewhat (to 19 per cent) if the reason for using these products was to prevent as well as treat disease or illness.
These results align with a previous survey[ii] conducted by the ACMF in 2018, in which 56 per cent of Australians agreed, without qualification, that it is appropriate to use antibiotics to ensure the health and welfare of a chicken flock. Of the 44 per cent of Australians that did not initially agree with the statement that it was appropriate to use antibiotics to ensure the health and welfare of chicken flocks, almost half (48 per cent) agreed that such use would be appropriate if it posed no risk to humans.
Interestingly, Australians are not the only nationality that shares this view – this was also discovered in a survey conducted in Europe, when the public was asked about their use and knowledge of antibiotics and their attitudes to antibiotic use in farm animals (https://ec.europa.eu/health/amr/sites/amr/files/2018_factsheet_en.pdf). In that survey, 56 per cent also agreed outright with the statement that “sick farm animals should be treated with antibiotics if appropriate”.
These community views align with the chicken meat industry’s position that the onus is on the industry itself to ensure that antibiotics are only used in ways that do not compromise human health while ensuring that chickens are able to live a life free from treatable bacterial diseases.
Australian consumers in the latest survey admitted that their knowledge of the use of antibiotics in animal food production is lacking, with 43 per cent stating that they knew very little about the matter, and an additional 20 per cent saying they knew nothing at all. Only two per cent reported that they knew ‘a great deal’ about this topic.
And while the vast majority understood that the primary reason that antibiotics might be used in chicken production is to reduce the risk of disease entering and spreading in flocks or for treating ill flocks, this limited knowledge about animal production practices and antibiotics has probably led to some ongoing misperceptions, with the survey revealing that 12 per cent of survey respondents said that antibiotics are used to increase the growth rate of meat chickens. This is despite the introduction of an industry-wide policy 15 years ago of no use of antibiotics for growth promotion.
The survey also revealed that there is some confusion around whether using antibiotics in chicken production means antibiotics end up on the chicken meat we eat. When asked to indicate their level of concern about antibiotic use in chicken meat production, 36 per cent of consumers say they are either ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about consuming antibiotic residues. The fact of the matter is that 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 processed for human consumption. The use of these withholding periods ensures there are no unsafe residues in meat or other products destined for sale for human consumption.
Australians can be assured by the fact that decades of testing conducted by the National Residue Survey demonstrates that chicken meat produced in Australia meets Australian government standards and is free of potentially unsafe residues. For more information about the Australian chicken industry’s activities to minimise the risk of AMR bacteria visit the ACMF website https://www.chicken.org.au/chicken-health-welfare/