Sanderson Farms: judicious antibiotic use improves sustainability, animal welfare

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

Related tags Antibiotics Bacteria

Feeding antibiotics selectively allows producers to be more sustainable and responsive to animal welfare, says Sanderson Farms. 

The Mississippi-based company announced in August that unlike several large US chicken producers it would be continuing to use antibiotics in its production. It also launched a marketing campaign to explain why it would continue the practice.

We caught up with Sanderson veterinarian, Phil Stayer, to talk about company practices and what was informing their marketing campaign.

“We’re not going to abuse what we have,” ​he told us. “The concern is, if we walk away from what is approved, they’re not going to make any more [and] to be sustainable we need more tools, not less tools.”

Definitive evidence that links use of antibiotics in poultry production to the increase in bacteria resistant to antibiotics important for human health has yet to be established, he said. Studies on the topic have been associative in the connections drawn, not causative.

“We’d like other options, but we don’t see the science say that antibiotic use in food animals causes it [antibiotic resistance],”​ he said. “We don’t see evidence of what we’re doing is hurting the environment in terms of antibiotic resistance.”

Initial reactions

Early reactions to the marketing campaign have been varied, depending on the group responding, said Stayer. Outside of the industry, there is the vocal minority who has not liked the message and the silent majority that has not offered much response.

“Everybody likes the commercials, and within the chicken industry we get a lot of back patting,” ​he said. Veterinarians especially are interested in being able to continue to use therapeutic interventions and some are concerned that the movement to remove all antibiotics from feed or water will start to affect how other species are raised, he added.

The marketing project is an effort to keep technologies available to the poultry industry, he said. “I do think[consumers] are asking for what they don’t understand,”​ he added.

Birds raised in antibiotic-free production systems may fill a niche market but people are paying more for a marketing decision, said Stayer. “That’s not good for family economics,” ​he added.

Current usage

Currently, there are specific times and reasons that antibiotics are given to birds in production for Sanderson, said Stayer.

Birds are given a combined vaccine and antibiotic while they are still in the egg, he said. The antibiotic, gentamicin, is used to protect the bird from E. coli​, and the practice is considered to save about 0.5% in one million birds or about 5,000.

Additionally, there will be ionophores used in feed to address necrotic enteritis and clostridium diseases, he said. “You’ve got to control coccidiosis,”​ he added.

However, the fed products are not medically important for humans, said Stayer.

Along with gentamicin, other antibiotics that are used for both human and bird health include tetracycline, penicillin or sulfas, he said. Those would be used with veterinary supervision for a specific purpose.

“We use what is safe for the consumer and safe for the bird,”​ he added.

When birds become ill veterinarians need to be able to treat them, said Stayer. “I’m proud to work where they’re not making a marketing decision not to use what’s available,” ​he added.

Most companies who have started no-antibiotic ever lines do have outlets for birds that have to be given an antibiotic, he said. But the process is not always simple.

“We have to take care of the animal – if that involves use of antibiotics we’ll do that as approved by the FDA,”​ he said.

Assessment and antibiotic alternatives

The company has not ignored the proliferation of antibiotic alternatives, said Stayer. It has tested several types of products including essential oils, prebiotics and probiotics, but they have yet to provide results as consistently as antibiotics.

However, company practices continue to be evaluated, he said. A selection of birds from each location is examined for pathogens about every six weeks by company veterinarians and outside consultants.  

“Are ubiquitous pathogens being held at bay? Can we use less?” ​he said. “For economic reasons [we want to] use as little as possible, the lowest legal dose possible, but if a parasite has increased pressure then we increase the dose.”


Sanderson also has argued that using current production practices is more sustainable than working without antibiotic treatments.

It could potentially take up to 20% more land, water and feed to produce current flocks without antibiotics based on bird mortality, said Stayer. However, other production changes have improved practices.

“On the antibiotic intervention we have lost more than we’ve gained,” ​he said. “But if you look at genetics [from the 1950s] when we started selecting for the chicken of tomorrow – every year we get bigger chickens on less feed.”

Chicken mortality had been dropping, he said. Feed is designed to better meet birds’ needs and provide balanced amino acid levels and housing has improved to mitigate temperature extremes and keep birds more comfortable.

Antibiotic use stats

From 2009 to 2014, sale of antimicrobials for use in food-producing animals grew by 22%, reported​ the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 2014 sales amounted to about 15,389,000kg or 16,963 tons.

Sales of medically important antimicrobials amounted to 62% of domestic sales of antimicrobials approved use in production animals in 2014, reported the USDA.

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1 comment

you don't speak for me - I am also a vet

Posted by anothervet's 2 cents,

Phil Stayer does not speak for all veterinarians. I adamently oppose preventative use of antimicrobial drugs in meat animals. A cleaner, more natural environment will reduce stress and support the immune systems of the animals. The basic problem is the idea of factory farming economics being the most important consideration in the meat industry. PS - My payceck doesn't come from the industry and my first priority are one health - animal and human. health

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