One example of how this dynamic system has evolved and innovated to meet changing expectations involves antibiotic use. 

Decades of experience have underscored the value of raising chickens in an environmentally controlled space — a poultry house. But this requires administering antibiotics to the chickens — a practice that has sparked harsh criticism in some quarters.

“The reason we provide antibiotics is because of the chickens’ proximity to each other in the poultry houses,” Bilgili says. “It’s like a school vaccination program.

“We vaccinate children because they are in close proximity to each other within a confined space. It’s the same with chickens.”

Poultry team leader Joseph Hess, an Extension specialist and Auburn poultry science professor, says that the industry has managed to overcome part of this challenge, partly through advances in poultry genetics.

“We’re producing chickens that mature at a faster rate, and once they reach a certain size, they don’t need antibiotics,” says Hess.

As a result, the final two feeding rations, which comprise between 50 and 60 percent of the chickens’ intake in the course of their lives, are now antibiotic free. Team members credit the industry with going a long way toward reducing antibiotic use substantially in response to consumer views — a change confirmed by routine residue testing of the product.  

“This has resulted in a product with the cleanest bill of health of any other product in the livestock industry,” Bilgili says. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration not only monitors poultry feed, but also requires producers to document all facets of feeding.”

Another area of poultry production that has drawn criticism is associated with the occasional outbreaks and recalls stemming from the presence of pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter and listeria on raw chicken products.

“None of these pathogens make chickens sick, but they have the potential to end up in the final product,” Bilgili says, adding that the U.S. poultry system has developed a sophisticated system that encompasses microbiological monitoring and voluntary product recalls to reduce risks to consumers.

“On the food safety side, we have an industry that is highly regulated, with federal regulators supervised by a veterinarian at every plant, inspecting every chicken that passes through the system,” he says.

“Even in spite of these advances, when you produce 170 million chickens a week, you’re going to have occasional recalls,” Biligili says. “But consumers should understand these recalls not only demonstrate our system is responsive but also that it is working as it was intended to do.”

 

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Team members stress that all raw meat products, even processed ones, carry risks.

“We all want safe food products — and this industry produces among the safest products in the world, Bilgili says, “But we need to understand that when we take home a raw meat product, we should respect what we have by handling it carefully to avoid cross-contamination and cooking it thoroughly.”

While all the poultry team members concede there is room for improvement, there is one fact of which they are dead certain: Modern poultry production will never be completely replaced by traditional forms of poultry meat and egg production, whether organic or free-range.

Even as they acknowledge the appeal of these practices and provide education to many aspiring homegrown poultry producers, these experts say that conventional poultry processing will continue to supply as much as 80 percent of consumer needs.

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