The economic reason this chicken producer gave up antibiotics
JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: the final installment of our special series Stopping Superbugs, which this week focused on the potential dangers of antibiotic use in industrial-scale farming.
Last night, science correspondent Miles O'Brien paid a visit to a pig farm.
Tonight, economics correspondent Paul Solman picks up our reporting by checking on how things are done on a commercial chicken farm.
It's part of our weekly economics feature, Making Sense.
PAUL SOLMAN: Why are you knocking?
BRUCE STEWART-BROWN, Veterinarian, Perdue Farms: I'm letting the chickens know we're coming.
PAUL SOLMAN: A chicken house in Salisbury, Maryland.
Holy smokes. How many chickens are in here?
BRUCE STEWART-BROWN: So, there's about 49,000.
PAUL SOLMAN: Forty-nine thousand?
BRUCE STEWART-BROWN: But you can see there's plenty of space for them to move to open areas if they'd like to.
PAUL SOLMAN: Veterinarian Bruce Stewart-Brown oversees poultry production for a brand some of you may have grown up with.
FRANK PERDUE, CEO, Perdue Farms: Every Perdue chicken has one of these tags on it.
PAUL SOLMAN: Frank Perdue became famous as the tough man to make a tender chicken.
MAN: You might wonder what drives a man like this.
PAUL SOLMAN: But an even tougher man raised him.
PAUL SOLMAN: Back in the 1920s, Arthur Perdue founded not just a hugely successful business, but some would say an entire industry.
ELLEN SILBERGELD, Johns Hopkins University: And this is ground zero to the chicken industry and in fact to all of intensive agriculture. It all began here.
PAUL SOLMAN: Johns Hopkins University environmental scientist Ellen Silbergeld is author of "Chickenizing Farms and Food," which chronicles the rise of factory farming.
We need it to feed the world, she says, but not by feeding low doses of antibiotics to livestock, supposedly to promote growth or prevent disease before it happens.
ELLEN SILBERGELD: Between 70 and 80 percent of total antibiotic production is used in agriculture.
PAUL SOLMAN: And is the use in agriculture creating as much resistance in the bacteria as the use with humans?
ELLEN SILBERGELD: I think it's arguably creating more. When bacteria are exposed to low doses of antibiotics, bacteria are stressed, but not killed. And the community sends out signals whereby they share resistance genes.
PAUL SOLMAN: Really?
ELLEN SILBERGELD: Yes. So, actually low-dose antibiotics over a long period of time are much worse than high-dose.
PAUL SOLMAN: Much worse, says Silbergeld, in that they expose workers and consumers to rapidly evolving antibiotic-resistant microbes, perhaps in the very air we were breathing near this chicken house in Sussex County, Delaware.
ELLEN SILBERGELD: We and others have done studies where we have tracked the outflow from these ventilation fans, and we can find antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are genetically identical to the bacteria inside the house as far away as essentially three football fields.
And, furthermore, there are flies and other things that come in and out of the house, and they can move as far as three miles away.
PAUL SOLMAN: Flies and fans spreading microbes that, under the right conditions, can cause serious illness, even death.
ELLEN SILBERGELD: We are coming up against the end of the age of antibiotics, exhausting what many have called the crown jewels of medicine. And, if I may say, we're throwing them like pearls before swine.
PAUL SOLMAN: And you mean that …
ELLEN SILBERGELD: Literally.
PAUL SOLMAN: As my colleague Miles O'Brien reported last night, antibiotics are routinely fed to pigs and cattle, which live a lot longer than chickens, a practice microbiologist Lance Price understands, even if he doesn't condone it.
LANCE PRICE, George Washington University: Pigs spend their entire lives in these concentrated animal feeding operations, crowded, stressed, standing around on their own feces. They're just more likely to get sick.
PAUL SOLMAN: For chickens, it all started in the 1940s, with some pharmaceutical industry studies purporting to show that antibiotics promoted growth.
ELLEN SILBERGELD: These are studies that were all conducted within laboratories. They were not in the real world situation of a chicken houses. They were for very short periods of time, two to seven weeks.
PAUL SOLMAN: How many in a study?
ELLEN SILBERGELD: Thirty would be a big study.
PAUL SOLMAN: Thirty chickens?
ELLEN SILBERGELD: Most of them were four or five.
PAUL SOLMAN: On this flimsy foundation, argues Silbergeld, was a match formed between big pharma and big farm.
JIM PERDUE, Chairman, Perdue Farms: I think the industry used antibiotics because they just always did.
PAUL SOLMAN: Jim Perdue is the third generation to run the family business. For decades, Perdue's poultry, like almost all chickens, were raised on antibiotics.
JIM PERDUE: There was a perception that they would grow better if you gave them antibiotics, because it would, for lack of a better word, clean up the gut and absorb nutrients more efficiently.
PAUL SOLMAN: But the evidence really wasn't there.
JIM PERDUE: But you do a lot of things that you have been doing forever, and you just assume that's the way you do it, until you actually look at it and test it.
PAUL SOLMAN: In 2002, Perdue farms did just that, publishing the results of a three-year experiment involving millions of birds. Half were raised on antibiotics, the other half not.
ELLEN SILBERGELD: The data basically showed there was little or no difference.
PAUL SOLMAN: Silbergeld then asked economists to calculate how much bang Perdue was getting for its antibiotics buck, the standard cost-benefit analysis at the heart of economics.
ELLEN SILBERGELD: A return on investment, yes. And the results showed that they were actually losing money by purchasing antibiotics.
PAUL SOLMAN: But their own study wasn't what turned Perdue against maintenance antibiotics, the latest scion says.
JIM PERDUE: We did it because the consumer was asking for it.
PAUL SOLMAN: Fifteen years later, all chicken sold under the Perdue brand has been raised with no antibiotics ever.
JIM PERDUE: If you say no antibiotics that are important to humans, there is a but, or no antibiotics except subtherapeutic. That's a but.
PAUL SOLMAN: But it wasn't easy, nor was it, as they say in chicken, cheep. Step one, says Perdue's chief vet, Bruce Stewart-Brown, was to ramp up their hatchery hygiene.
BRUCE STEWART-BROWN: If there's a piece of organic material, just wipe it off, and use a different spot and, then turn it over, use another spot, and then get rid of it, and get a new one.
PAUL SOLMAN: A new baby wipe, that is. They use a lot of baby wipes.
DAVID BAILEY, Hatchery Manager, Perdue Farms: We process four days a week.
PAUL SOLMAN: David Bailey is hatchery manager.
DAVID BAILEY: For one week, I need 1,451,520 eggs.
PAUL SOLMAN: Step two, make sure the vaccine that goes into every egg is uncontaminated.
Previously, a vaccine to prevent a chicken viral disease was mixed in the middle of the hatchery, with antibiotics added to kill common bacteria.
BRUCE STEWART-BROWN: And so this is the vaccine mixing room, and we actually put laminar flow hoods, special air flow. That keeps the vaccine from getting any contamination even in this controlled environment.
PAUL SOLMAN: Step three, a vegetarian diet, to replace the antibiotic-laced feed.
JIM PERDUE: We got rid of meat and bone meal, because that introduced salmonella and other things into the diet.
PAUL SOLMAN: And now they're experimenting with lifestyle changes, including increased playtime in a handful of hen houses, on the theory that it takes a happier home to grow a healthier chicken.
BRUCE STEWART-BROWN: Play is a little bit down right now. They're resting quite a bit.
PAUL SOLMAN: Can't we just go, hey, chickens, be active?
Turns out, to my embarrassment, that this isn't how chickens like to kid around.
BRUCE STEWART-BROWN: That's scaring them.
PAUL SOLMAN: OK, guys, sorry. I apologize. I thought I was playing.
Perdue is succeeding antibiotic-free. But with all the concern and dire warnings, how is it that an estimated 70 percent of the industry is still raising birds on antibiotics?
ACTOR: Some chicken brands use labels to trick people and charge higher prices.
ACTOR: Raised without antibiotics.
ACTOR: That's just marketing-speak.
PAUL SOLMAN: Mississippi-based Sanderson is the nation's third largest chicken producer, just ahead of number four Perdue. They say most of their customers don't much care if they eat chicken raised on antibiotics.
MIKE COCKRELL, CFO, Sanderson Farms: Across the Southeast, where most of our brand — branded product is sold, it's simply not that big of an issue.
PAUL SOLMAN: And, says chief financial officer Mike Cockrell, while it's nice to sell antibiotics-raised chicken at a lower price, that's not why they use the drugs. They want to be fair to the fowl.
MIKE COCKRELL: If I can prevent illness in the flock, we're going to do that.
LAMPKIN BUTTS, President, Sanderson Farms: We sat down with our vets and asked our vets to do their homework.
PAUL SOLMAN: Company president Lampkin Butts.
LAMPKIN BUTTS: And tell us whether anything we're doing with antibiotics in our flocks causes antibiotic resistance in humans. And they did the research, and they came back and said, absolutely not.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, we asked chief veterinarian Phil Stayer, doesn't the use of antibacterial drugs in animals raise the possibility that there will be resistance in bacteria and other organisms that will come back to haunt human beings?
PHIL STAYER, Chief Veterinarian, Sanderson Farms: Using antibiotics will induce resistance in any organism. The question is, what does food animal medicine in particular have to do with contributing to that? And I think that risk is so small, we can't measure it.
PAUL SOLMAN: The scientists we have talked to say there's a real danger in using antibacterial drugs in animals like chickens.
MARTHA EWING, Veterinarian, Sanderson Farms: We talk to scientists as well.
PAUL SOLMAN: Veterinarian Martha Ewing.
MARTHA EWING: But we have our own scientists who say that if we get a bacterial infection in chickens that's serious enough to warrant another antibacterial, it's very possible it may actually induce more resistance.
PAUL SOLMAN: It sounded like the red state/blue state divide.
PHIL STAYER, Chief Veterinarian, Sanderson Farms: University of Minnesota, Kansas State University, they can't find a link in terms of human resistance based upon food animal use.
PAUL SOLMAN: While the elite East Coast schools have.
So we asked Ellen Silbergeld of Johns Hopkins, is it your word against their word?
ELLEN SILBERGELD: No, it is not. And, if I may say so, I'm very tired of the press who says, on the one hand, and on the other.
PAUL SOLMAN: But you do understand that somebody in my position, who can't possibly assess one study from the next, or one journal from the next, you can understand why I would be trying to be, on the one hand, on the other hand?
ELLEN SILBERGELD: You know, at a certain point, this is rocket science.
PAUL SOLMAN: OK, so what am I supposed to do if it is rocket science?
Fortunately, I had someone else to turn do.
You're the guy who covers rocket science. So, am I just out of my depth here?
MILES O'BRIEN: I'm afraid it is rocket science. And the scientists I speak with are practically apocalyptic about a post-antibiotic era.
Think of the procedures that could not happen. Chemotherapy, Caesarean sections, hip replacements, all of them absolutely rely on antibiotics. So imagine a world where we can't have those procedures and where people die of simple blisters, as occurred, not uncommonly, in the pre-antibiotic era.
PAUL SOLMAN: But we don't want to scare people. This isn't happening right now. Most antibiotics still work for most problems that people have.
MILES O'BRIEN: But the numbers are grim. And it is time to do something right now. The alarm bells are ringing.
PAUL SOLMAN: And, from my point of view, the problem is that the market hasn't been able to solve this problem. Maybe it cannot solve this problem, and, therefore, we need alternative solutions.
For the PBS NewsHour this is economics correspondent Paul Solman.
MILES O'BRIEN: And I'm the science correspondent, Miles O'Brien.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch all of Miles O'Brien and Paul Solman's reports on antibiotics and superbugs online at pbs.org/newshour.