Chicken farmers reintroduce growth drugs despite public fear

James Meikle, health correspondent
Tuesday May 27, 2003
The Guardian

One in five poultry companies that abandoned the use of antibiotics to make chickens grow faster are now using them again.

Producers and retailers have quietly reintroduced growth promoters despite previously dropping them in response to public unease about the practice. The body that monitors production standards for 85%-90% of the industry is expected to sanction the practice for at least another year on the grounds that birds are falling ill without the feed additives.

Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain, has admitted it is now selling chicken reared with the antibiotics once more although it hoped all its British-produced chicken would be free of growth promoters again by September.

The move has angered campaigners determined to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture.

They say the government can no longer rely on industry to bring about change and the overuse of drugs in animals will endanger human health by increasing the speed at which bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics.

They are particularly concerned that superbugs, which are responsible for huge rises in infections among hospital patients, will quickly render powerless the drugs that are meant to control them.

The row over how Britain's poultry industry rears birds for the dinner table comes only days after the Guardian and BBC's Panorama programme revealed how beef proteins were routinely found in chicken imported from the Netherlands.

The Soil Association, best known as a standard-bearer for organic food, has complained to the environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, who has conceded that the way the drugs are now being used "could be illegal". She has asked veterinary medicines watchdogs to investigate.

The association has told her that using the antibiotics to control disease, as it says is now being done, is prohibited under European law. The European commission does allow their use to speed up growth, at least until 2006 when their use will be banned totally, but in 1999 companies in this country began to realise that promising not to use them would be a powerful marketing weapon.

Yet sales of growth promoters fell by only 6% between 1998 and 2001 while the use of some related veterinary products rose, according to Richard Young, the Soil Association's policy adviser on antibiotics, who is particularly worried about the continuing use of the growth promoter avilamycin, from a family of drugs that might be used to treat humans.

"It is very unfortunate that the intensive poultry industry is trying to deceive the public in this way and not preparing for the 2006 deadline," he said.

It was clear Mrs Beckett's department was not in control, he added. "The government must provide a stronger lead on this issue and give farmers more guidance and support to switch to methods of rearing animals that allow drug use to be reduced."

Assured Chicken Production, which sets standards for most of the #2.8bn-a-year British chicken industry, prohibited their use in 2000 but last year quietly allowed them back on "welfare" grounds, under the supervision of a veterinarian.

ACP's chairman, Sir Colin Spedding, insisted: "The way we are using them... is entirely legal."

Vets, producers and retailers had complained that some flocks were developing liver damage and diarrhoea. This caused extra mess on the bird's litter in production complexes and caused more birds to suffer from hock burn on their legs.

The additives were used to prevent disease, not treat it. The 20% of companies who had taken advantage of the changed ACP rule did not do so at all times or in all flocks. They also reported a 23% drop in the use of therapeutic drugs to control illness.

"It is increasingly evident to us that there is no risk to humans from the use of avilamycin but there is a risk from the therapeutic ones. We appear to be having the effect of increasing the use of these by having a ban [on growth promoters]," Sir Colin said.

"We are inclined to say, for a small number of producers who took advantage of our derogation, they are doing it on welfare grounds, they are having a beneficial effect by reducing use of therapeutic antibiotics and they are not causing any problems to anybody."

The Grampian Country Food Group, the biggest single poultry producer whose 200 million broilers a year represent around a quarter of the home-grown chicken supply, became the first to remove growth promoters in 1999 after trials suggested that to do so would not harm the birds' welfare.

It told the Guardian last week: "Our view is that you can grow chickens without growth promoters and we will stick by that."

Marks & Spencer, among the major stores that quickly followed suit, said it had stuck by a ban on the use of growth promoters by any of its suppliers. But Tesco found that the ban had "caused welfare problems to the chickens". It had reintroduced the antibiotics while looking for alternatives.