Natural Foods Merchandiser

Nonorganic chicken producers in a flap over FDA ruling

Baytril, the veterinary antibiotic widely used to treat infections in conventionally produced chickens, was banned earlier this week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It seems unlikely, however, that this will spur chicken farmers to transition to natural production and increase the competition in that playing field.

"It will not [have] a large impact but we think it is an unfortunate decision because where it is needed and appropriate, it is basically the only medication that really works and there's really no alternative to it," said Richard Loeb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council.

While Baytril is effective in treating respiratory infections in chickens, the Campylobacter organism, which lives benignly in the intestinal tracts of chickens, becomes resistant to the drug. "These resistant bacteria multiply in the digestive tracts of poultry and persist and spread through transportation and slaughter, and are found on chicken carcasses in slaughter plants and retail poultry meats," FDA stated in a news release. When people eat chickens that harbor Campylobacter, they become ill. ?More than a million people annually suffer from infections caused by Campylobacter,? the FDA noted in its decision. Because the bacteria are already resistant to antibiotics, the illness becomes very difficult to treat and people may develop serious complications.

Loeb said that while other drugs do exist, they?re less effective, and if chickens develop colibacillosis—the infection the drug is used to treat in breeder hens—the disease "can virtually wipe out a flock," he said. "The companies are more concerned about the loss of these breeder birds because you keep them longer. These are valuable birds because they're laying the eggs that become the broilers." Nonetheless, he said, only about 1 percent to 2 percent of flocks are treated with the antibiotic, so the decision is unlikely to convince major chicken producers to go all-natural or organic. "There?s just not as much use of antibiotics as there used to be, and that's just due to better animal husbandry and better animal housing."

Baytril has been in use since 1996. In 2000, the FDA moved to ban the drug after concerns were raised about the drug's safety. Bayer, the maker of the antibiotic, appealed the motion but the appeal culminated in Monday's decision to disallow the use of Baytril. Unless Bayer appeals this decision, the ban takes effect Sept. 12.

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