Understanding the Chicken Scandal

Chicken ScandalIn 1945, British Scientists Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain created the first safe antibiotic – penicillin. Antibiotics are credited for preventing bacterial infections from causing severe immune system damage, more importantly; they are credited for saving the lives of millions of people. In fact, antibiotics are considered one of modern medicines greatest achievements.

Unfortunately, antibiotics have been vastly overused and this has led to antibiotic resistance; rendering many antibiotics either ineffective or not as effective as they use to be.   This is extremely problematic because serious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, gonorrhea and childhood ear infections are now much more difficult to treat than they were 30 years ago.  In addition, critically ill patients in the hospital are experiencing immune system collapses because they are unable to fight off infections due to antibiotic resistance.


Antibiotic resistance is not merely a product of direct consumption; we are exposed to antibiotics every time we eat non organic produce. In order to keep up with the extremely high demand for meat and poultry, farmers have started mass producing these animals, in environments that predispose them to disease. The farmers routinely feed their livestock antibiotics in order to prevent them from getting sick, and to increase their growth rate.  This practice is so widespread that an estimated 13.2 million Kg of antibiotics are sold annually to poultry and livestock industries, which equates to a whopping 80 percent of all antibiotic sales in the U.S..

Fluoroquinolones is a broad spectrum antibiotic reserved for the treatment of severe bacterial infections and preventing the bacteria from causing permanent bodily damage.  It is a powerful drug and one of the few antibiotics that the human immune system has not yet built-up a resistance to. In attempt to preserve the efficacy of the Fluoroquinolones, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned its use in livestock’s, in 2005. Despite this ban, a recent study published in the March 21st edition of Environmental Science & Technology Journal reveals that these antibiotics are still widely in use by the poultry industry.

The study was conducted by researchers at Arizona State University and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The researchers examined feather meal, acquired from six U.S. states, as well as from China. Feather meal is made from poultry feathers and examining them allowed the scientists to decipher which drugs the poultry may have been given before their slaughter.   All of the 12 samples which were tested contained between 2 and 10 antimicrobials, amongst other harmful residues such as acetaminophen, caffeine and the prescription antidepressant Prozac. What’s more 8 out of the 12 samples contained fluoroquinolones and according to the lead researcher, David Love, PhD, “The discovery of certain antibiotics in feather meal strongly suggests the continued use of these drugs, despite the ban put in place in 2005 by the FDA.” This is extremely dangerous because humans may very well become resistant to this important antibiotic through continuous consumption of poultry and will thereby be rendered powerless to the damage caused by bacterial infections.

Unfortunately, the FDA has not responded to this study with the seriousness that it deserves, they merely requested voluntary action to be taken amongst livestock producers. However, the researchers of this study are skeptical that the industry will take any action at all. “A high enough concentration was found in one of the samples to select for bacteria that are resistant to drugs important to treat infections in humans,” states the study coauthor Keeve Nachman, PhD. This is quite serious and “we have very little confidence that the food animal production industry can be left to regulate it-self. We strongly believe that the FDA should monitor what drugs are going into animal feed.”