Perdue Farms Curbs Human Antibiotic Use in Chickens

One of the country's largest poultry distributors announced today that the bulk of its flock no longer employed antibiotics used in human medicinal consumption - a move applauded by industry watchdogs.

Health experts have warned overuse of the drugs in agriculture can contribute to the creation of so-called "superbugs," antibiotic-resistant diseases that kill thousands each year.

Perdue Farms Chairman Jim Perdue made the announcement at a news conference in Washington, D.C. The company said the scaling back only extended to antibiotics with uses in human consumption. Other antibiotics found only in veterinary medicine would still be distributed, including in livestock feed.

The company also announced it would be removing all antibiotics - human and animal - from its hatcheries, compensating for the move with improved cleaning methods for eggs and increased use of vaccinations.

"We've reached the point where 95 percent of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics, and the remainder receive them only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian," said Perdue's vice president for safety, Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown.

"Chickens do get sick once in a while," he later added.

The American agricultural industry uses antibiotics to combat the health issues that arise from cramped farm conditions - including sanitation, lack of sunlight, exercise, and air quality. They can also be used to make livestock gain weight faster, with less food, though Perdue said it has not used it for that purpose since 2007.

But since many farms apply antibiotics on even healthy flocks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned to use the drugs only when medically necessary. All usage leads to resistance - in both human and animal alike.

In 2012, an ABC News special investigation, partnered with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, reported that an antibiotic resistant strain of E. coli found in poultry had likely put eight million women at risk of bladder infections. FERN's health reporter Maryn McKenna, now of Wired Magazine and author of "Superbug," said Perdue's announcement today appeared to be an optimistic note for health watchers.

Perdue Farms "might be doing the one thing public officials have been asking for," she told ABC News, but added with caution that research into veterinary antibiotics was not as documented as those used in humans.

Perdue itself admitted that the effect against resistance may not be known for years.

Regardless, industry watchdogs are praising the move.

"Perdue and its customers deserve a lot of credit for recognizing the importance of antibiotics and we commend the company for curbing their overuse," said Gail Hansen, a health and industrial farming officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "This is an important step for public health, and we hope other producers follow suit."