Chicken In Pet Food: It’s Not All About China

Dead chicken in chicken factory for pet food production
Factory farmed chicken

Most pet owners remember the massive recalls of 2007. Hundreds of animals were killed and thousands more became ill from eating tainted food from China. It seems that the recalls are up once again with 16 foods recalled so far in 2013.

From 2010 through Dec. 17, 2012, a reported 2,674 dogs were sickened as a result of eating chicken jerky treats made in China. A reported 501 dogs died as a result of eating the tainted treats. The FDA however, has failed to determine why pets could get sick or die after consuming these treats from China so recalls haven’t been issued by the FDA. The US pet food companies then continued selling their jerky treats, ignoring public pressure to remove their products from the shelves.

In early January 2013, the New York State Department of Agriculture (NYSDA) issued a report disclosing their finding of trace levels of antibiotics in various chicken jerky products imported from China. Finally, with the report from NYSDA, several voluntary recalls followed.

The FDA isn’t convinced that the trace amounts of antibiotic are what made dogs sick or caused renal failure, which ultimately killed some pets. But it may be a good time to take a better look at those antibiotics, as well as the sudden spike in salmonella in pet foods.

A Closer Look At Antibiotics In Chicken

The recalls of 2007, as well as the more recent recalls, have pushed concerned pet owners to look for safer alternatives. Some pet owners continue feeding commercial chicken jerky treats but only those made in their own country, while others may be dehydrating their own treats at home. What these pet owners don’t know is that poultry manufactured right here in North America is just as shrouded in secrecy as the Chinese sources of chicken – and maybe equally dangerous. In fact, what’s happening to chicken in our own backyard might shock you.

The use of antibiotics in poultry production is becoming a risk to not only our dogs’ health, but our own as well. Over the years, the risk of multi-drug resistant bacteria present in chicken has generated several reports.

Here are a few of the publications:

The scariest part isn’t that these antibiotics are in chicken: what’s frightening is that it isn’t being addressed.

In 2003, the animal protection group Compassion Over Killing produced a video exposé of the biggest farm animal industry in our country – the factory farming of chickens raised for meat.  Entitled 45 days,  it laid out the short, brutal life of a broiler chicken: panting, overcrowded, lame, limping and even dead birds.

New Yorker writer Michael Specter wrote separately in 2003 on his first visit to a broiler factory farm, “I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe….There must have been thirty thousand chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn’t move, didn’t cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way.”

That was ten years ago and it’s the last time the public saw in any detail the life of a factory farmed broiler chicken in the US.

An article in Food Safety News suggests why: No transparency in poultry production, and therefore no leverage for finding points in the process where the potential hazards could be reduced. The piece, by Leah Garces of the nonprofit Compassion in World Farming, is very direct; it’s titled “Why We Haven’t Seen Inside a Broiler Chicken Factory Farm in a Decade.”

Here’s her answer:

Globally, the world raises and slaughters some 40 billion chickens for meat every year – 9 billion of whom are right here in the U.S. We are the world’s largest producer. More than 99 perccent of U.S. broiler chickens are raised in barren windowless enclosed long houses, houses that remain inaccessible to anyone outside the industry…

A full 25,000 individual animals defecate in the same enclosed space for 45 days. They get a lot bigger, rapidly growing from the size of your fist to the size of a soccer ball in that short period. They crowd that space as they grow, with each individual only having space equivalent to less than a piece of 8”x11” paper.   It is a sea of chickens from wall to wall, sitting in their own feces, struggling to move, in large part because of their genetics. The modern broiler chicken is unnaturally large and has been bred to grow at a fast rate. This selective breeding produces as side effects serious welfare consequences including leg disorders: skeletal, developmental and degenerative diseases, heart and lung problems, breathing difficulty, and premature death. The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture explains the unnaturally fast growth rate as follows: “If you grew as fast as a chicken, you’d weigh 349 pounds at age 2.

Currently there are “ag gag” laws passed in three states (Iowa, Missouri and Utah) and proposed in many more that make it illegal to reproduce images or video from the inside of large scale farms. While many are fighting these laws out of animal welfare concerns, the persistence of drug-resistant organisms and the over-use of antibiotics are another reason why there needs to be transparency in factory farming.

CBC News, the Canadian national TV network, caused a stir in the food-blog world with the results of a nationwide investigation that found antibiotic resistant bacteria contaminating supermarket chicken. In its words:

Chicken bought at major supermarkets across Canada is frequently contaminated with superbugs — bacteria that many antibiotics cannot kill — an investigation by CBC TV’s Marketplace has found.

Marketplace researchers — along with their colleagues at Radio-Canada’s food show L’Epicerie — bought 100 samples of chicken from major grocery chains in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal… The 100 samples were sent to a lab for analysis. Two-thirds of the chicken samples had bacteria. That in itself is not unusual — E. coli, Salmonella andCampylobacter are often present in raw chicken.

What was surprising was that all of the bacteria uncovered during the Marketplace sampling were resistant to at least one antibiotic. Some of the bacteria found were resistant to six, seven or even eight different types of antibiotics.

This is the most worrisome study I’ve seen of its kind“, said Rick Smith, the head of Environmental Defence, a consumer advocacy group.

The graphics below come from a little-read report put out every year by the US Food and Drug Administration as part of its participation in NARMS, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System that’s shared by the FDA, USDA and CDC. The FDA handles the part of NARMS that looks for resistant bacteria in meat (CDC does human illnesses, USDA does live animals), and the figures above show the percentages of Salmonella and enterococci that were found in retail chicken breasts between 2002 and 2008 (the most recent report) and were resistant to various drugs. The bar along the bottom of each figure shows the major drug classes. So in 2008: 45% of Salmonella on chicken were resistant to tetracycline and 30% to penicillins; among enterococci (common gut bacteria, and therefore common contaminants of meat during slaughtering), 65% resistant to tetracycline and more than 90% to lincosamides, which include the everyday drug clindamycin.

FDA graph shoring the antimicrobial resistance among Salmonella from chicken breast between 2002-2008
FDA graph shoring the antimicrobial resistance among Enterococcus from chicken breast between 2002-2008

In the narrative portion of the report, the FDA said:

38.2% of chicken breast Salmonella isolates were resistant to ≥ 3 antimicrobial classes in 2008 compared to 51% in ground turkey, an increase in both from previous years. From 2002–2007, multidrug resistance to ≥ 3 antimicrobial classes ranged from 20–34.4% among chicken breast and 20.3–42.6% for ground turkey. More than 15% of chicken breast and ground turkey isolates showed resistance to ≥ 4 classes in 2008.

Regardless of the country of origin, drug resistant bacteria in food won’t diminish until we reduce the amount of drugs that food animals receive while they are raised. So if you feel safe about feeding your dog locally sourced chicken treats or chicken bought from the supermarket – well, safe is a relative term.

For more information, read:
Superbugs in Canadian chicken? Yes, and US too
Why We Can’t See Inside Poultry Production, and What Might Change if We Could

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