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“Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats,” by Maryn McKenna, National Geographic, Washington, DC, 2017. This 400-page hardback tells the story of antibiotics in agriculture and especially the risk of superbugs from excessive use. The author is a journalist whose book is thoroughly researched and well written.

Antibiotics began with penicillin which became available during World War II. Discovered in Britain, a sample was brought to the US, where research developed practical processes in time to treat the wounded. To make adequate supplies, the government financed the construction of numerous plants. After the war, plants were sold to drug companies and competition began. With so much competition, profits from penicillin were scarce, but companies set out to find additional antibiotics with considerable success. They also investigated new uses. Use in agriculture especially for growth promotion proved effective. Indeed in the US, 80% of antibiotic production is used in agriculture.

The risk of bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics is well known. Logically the bacteria that survive treatment with an antibiotic can thrive after their competition is eliminated. The book describes the discovery of plasmids, which allow bacteria to transfer drug resistance to other bacteria. Plasmids can accumulate resistance to multiple classes of antibiotics. While many bacteria are harmless, pathogens could develop resistance with serious consequences. The author strongly opposes the use of antibiotics in agriculture and describes efforts to eliminate this use.

The discovery that antibiotics are growth promoters is attributed to Thomas Jukes of Lederle Laboratories, a subsidiary of American Cyanamid, in 1948. He had tested the beer from the production of Aureomycin after Merck had reported success with the beer from streptomycin, which they attributed to the presence of vitamin B12. The work began with chickens but soon was extended to turkeys and hogs.

Traditionally chickens were raised for eggs. The chickens sent to market were either hens too old to lay eggs or the unwanted males sold after a few months as “spring chickens.” That changed in 1923, when Cecile Steele of Delmarva Peninsula received more chicks than ordered. She decided to raise them and found she could sell them for five times more than they got as hens. These chickens are known as broilers. Easy access to New York City and its Jewish population contributed to success. She expanded production over the years and neighbors copied making Delmarva, the home of Perdue, the leader in chicken farms.

During World War II, the government claimed Delmarva’s chicken production to feed the troops. That created an opportunity for chickens in Georgia, which had been devastated by the cotton boll weevil. Dixson Jewell started the business in Georgia. He used a sharecropper model where growers under contract borrowed to pay for supplies and were paid for their chickens. Jewell integrated vertically supplying feed, operating a hatchery and processing plant to slaughter and package chickens. Chickens were also raised in Arkansas (where Tysons is a leader, but McKenna gives their story little attention), and in other states across the South..

After the war, chicken prices fell. Production continued to grow, but consumption was flat. The use of antibiotics as growth promoters–producing greater feed efficiency came at just the right time. But the real problem was the time required to prepare chicken. The solution was the development of chicken tenders in 1963, by Robert Baker at Cornell University. The process consists of blending ground breast meat with powered milk and grain, freezing the formed mix, coating with batter, baking or frying to set and color the batter and freezing a second time. Aka chicken fingers or nuggets, these products are responsible for increased chicken consumption in the US from 28 lb/yr per person in 1960 to 92 lb in 2016.

Initially antibiotics were wonder drugs. Their use in food production was thought to be harmless. First evidence of problems appeared in 1956, when companies began to rinse meat in antibiotics to increase shelf life. The process, known as Acronizing, was developed by American Cyanamid. An outbreak of staph infections was traced to the use of antibiotics in processing chicken. Workers in the plants suffered from painful infections.

The first effort to restrict the use of antibiotics in agriculture was the Swann Report in UK in 1971, which limited their use to the treatment of sick animals and required a prescription from a vet. The act was ineffective because farmers maneuvered around it. A similar law was debated in the US in 1972. It would have put older drugs under the control of vets and low dosage uses would be banned in 1975 if companies failed to prove safety. An industry uproar ensued. Congressman Jamie Whitten of Mississippi blocked passage with a rider every year until his retirement in 1995.

A major event in chicken development was the Chicken of Tomorrow competition. The contest sought breeds with more white breast meat. It was run by the USDA after a suggestion by the poultry research director of A&P Food Stores. It began with state competitions in 1946, then regional competitions in 1947, and national finals in 1948. The result was the adoption of improved hybrids.

In the latter chapters, McKenna describes efforts to produce better chickens. One is the Label Rouge program in France which requires slow growing breeds, hours outdoors, limits on the size of chicken houses, and no antibiotics. In 2014, Perdue announced they do not use growth promoting antibiotics and had not since 2007. Careful comparisons showed little or no advantage to the use of antibiotics. The industry debates the reasons for the reduced performance. Perhaps other improvements achieved the same result. Organic chickens are antibiotic free after the first two days. Whole Foods, Panera, Chipotle, and Chick-A-Fil all are now antibiotic free. Others followed including McDonald’s, Subway, Costco and Walmart. The FDA finally enacted rules to eliminate use of growth promoters in 2012. The ban took effect in 2017. Drugmakers began taking their products off the market in 2014. (No wonder drug makers are reluctant to invest in antibiotics research.)

McKenna has given us a thoroughly researched volume. Details of almost any aspect can probably be found here described clearly in non-technical language. This book is recommended for those who want to know more about the chicken industry and antibiotics. References. Extensive bibliography. Index.
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