Questions remain over growth drugs in chicken

      Use of additives to hasten poultry growth is back on the rise, despite
NFU pledge to phase them out

      James Meikle
      Tuesday May 27, 2003
      The Guardian

      Question: Are the chickens injected with growth promoters?
      Answer: No, none of the chickens covered by the farm assurance scheme
is injected with antibiotic growth promoters.

      That is how Assured Chicken Production, the industry's
standards-setting body, and the "little red tractor" scheme that seeks to
assure consumers about food production standards, dealt with the issues of
chicken growth promoters.

      The standards body, funded by membership and inspection fees, is
committed to proving the industry "does understand and respond to consumer
concerns" - for example, about the use of antibiotic growth promoters.

      How strange then that by yesterday, after the Guardian had talked to
members of the industry, that question and answer had disappeared from the
body's website which lists common queries about the assured chicken scheme.

      The problem is that the additives, properly known as antibiotic
digestive enhancers, are not injected. They are given in feed.

      Peter King, of the National Farmers' Union, a strong backer of the
tractor logo, suggests the answer quoted above was directed at consumer
fears over additives such as hormones. The NFU is committed to phasing out
growth promoters "over a sensible period that does not lead to detrimental
animal welfare". The union says it is "trying to promote quality British

      Broiler chickens are ready for the table at six to seven weeks old.
Use of low-dose drugs as growth promoters became commonplace in British
agriculture quickly after their introduction in the early 1950s. Experience
in the United States suggested their use appeared to cancel out bacteria in
animals' intestines which hindered the absorption of nutrients.

      But by the mid-1980s there was mounting concern that their continual
use posed a threat to human health. Sweden soon banned the drugs. In the
late 1990s, the Danish pig and poultry industry stopped using them and the
European commission began action against them. Seven of the drugs are
already banned and the use of the remaining four will come to an end in
2006. Already, they cannot be used as veterinary drugs to treat animal

      One of the growth promoters still in use in chicken production is
avilamycin. Commission scientists were worried by the fact that an
antibiotic of the same class, evernimicin, was in development for combating
"superbugs" in hospitals.

      In 2000, the Schering-Plough drug company abandoned its product, which
it had named Ziracin after trials, because "the balance between efficacy and
safety did not justify further development of the product".

      Last week, the company said it was still not going ahead with
evernimicin but the Soil Association believes that this family of drugs
could affect human medicine. The association says there is still a
possibility that bacteria in people could quickly develop resistance to such
drugs because food for humans might stem from animals given similar

      Marketing edge

      The manufacturer of avilamycin, Eli Lilly, argues that there is no
safety issue and that the EC is banning the drug from 2006 on philosophical
grounds - "it doesn't like the use of growth promoters".

      In the late 1990s, too, the public revolted against the idea of food
being stuffed full of drugs, and companies saw a marketing edge in saying
they would no longer use such drugs.

      Industry figures show that in 1998, sales of the "active ingredient"
used in growth promoters amounted to 46 tonnes. The following two years saw
a fall to 23 tonnes and 24 tonnes, respectively. Yet by 2001, the figure was
back up to 43 tonnes, and this was before Assured Chicken Production had
allowed limited use once more.

      The difficulty explaining this rise lies in a lack of detail from the
veterinary medicines directorate, the government's watchdog body. It cannot
break down that figure of usage to differentiate between that given poultry
and that given other livestock.

      Sales of other antibiotics, for treating disease in Britain's farm
animals, rose by 10 tonnes to 459 tonnes in the same period - since 2001 was
the year of the foot and mouth disease outbreak. The veterinary medicines
directorate says the rise may be due partly to more animals needing
treatment because of the EC ban on some growth promoters in 1999.

      But the Soil Association says that voluntary measures by farm
producers to ensure more prudent use of veterinary medicines generally, are
not working.

      The body is pressing Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, to
end the "drug culture" in farming. It says it is not true to suggest, as Mrs
Beckett did in a letter to the association recently, that the Danish poultry
industry faced a big increase in the use of therapeutic drugs after its
voluntary ban on growth promoters. "This increase in Denmark relates almost
entirely to pig production. The overall use of antibiotics on Danish farms
has fallen significantly."

      Sir Colin Spedding, the chairman of Assured Chicken Production, says
the organisation has had representations from vets, producers and retailers,
pushing to reintroduce growth promoters.

      Although one in five members used such drugs last year, they did not
use them in each flock or for every production cycle. And among the 80% of
members who had not used the drugs, application of therapeutic medicines had
risen substantially.

      Professor Spedding said they had tried to avoid a public relations
problem, but had created a welfare problem.

      Growth promoters did prevent disease and make chickens grow faster,
but campaigners against them encouraged people "to think there is some
artificial stimulus to growth like hormones".