If you watch TV, you’ve probably seen actress Jamie Lee Curtis selling Activa, Dannon’s probiotic yogurt - or perhaps you've taken probiotic supplements to help you recover after a nasty intestinal infection. Probiotics are microorganisms that are thought to help improve the bacterial balance in our guts. It’s not clear whether they are effective in humans, but they do appear to work in chickens.
Recently, the third-largest chicken producer in the nation, Perdue Farms, announced that it had eliminated almost all antibiotics from its farm operations - a move that has been in the works at the company for a dozen years. As NPR’s The Salt blog recently reported, the company has turned, instead, to probiotics to help keep the chickens healthy:
"As we took antibiotics out of the feed, we put some other things in, such as probiotics," says Bruce Stewart-Brown, an executive at Perdue Farms. "We've increased the amount of probiotics by five times over the past five years. It's a significant part of our program."
Since the 1970s, farmers have given low doses of antibiotics to livestock animals to help them grow faster and bigger, a practice called “sub-therapeutic” use. And for almost as long, the practice has been viewed with suspicion by many concerned that it may encourage antibiotic resistance. Approximately 15-17 million pounds of antibiotics are given to livestock in the U.S. every year, according to Stuart Levy, MD, of Tufts University, director of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics.
In December, the FDA asked antibiotic producers to label their drugs so that they did not promote “sub-therapeutic” doses to fatten animals and earlier this month, the White House issued a report on combatting antibiotic resistance. One of the criticisms of the plan was that it didn’t make strong recommendations for reducing sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock animals.
Probiotics are a more expensive intervention than sub-therapeutic antibiotics, but offer an alternative – at least in chickens, as The Salt reports:
Stewart-Brown says that he was initially skeptical about probiotics. "Eight years ago, I would have said that they're not working in poultry. They're not very useful. Today, I'm saying that they are useful. Expensive, but useful. "Chickens that got probiotics stayed healthier and grew faster than birds that didn't.
Perdue’s experiment with probiotics is probably the largest of its kind among commercial producers. How they fare may be a bell weather of what’s to come for other agricultural livestock producers and provide them with a route away from antibiotic overuse.