UK’s largest poultry producer ends use of growth promoters

Supermarkets and consumers were taken by surprise when the UK's largest poultry producer announced its decision to phase-out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.

Producing nearly a third of all UK-reared chickens, Grampian Country Foods kept its six-month experiment into growth promotion elimination a secret, until the announcement on Wednesday 2 September. Because the company owns its own arable farms and animal feed mills it was well placed to conduct such a trial without publicity.

“What really surprised us was that we discovered we didn’t need the growth promoters,” Philip Hopley, CEO of Grampian’s argriculture division, told edie. “These growth promoters have been in use for 20 to 30 years and at the same time we have gradually improved the chickens’ living conditions. These improvements were happening anyway and they mean that growth promoters aren’t needed. We’re not the best friend of the pharmaceutical companies today.”

Grampian’s six-month trial involved about 1.5 million birds. Apart from removing growth promoters from the chicken feed, Grampian fed the birds a “herbal, vegetable-based product that is a well-recognised, fully-approved alternative supplement”, according to Hopley. Gradual changes to the chickens’ living conditions have included improved heating and ventilation.

According to Grampian, “the chickens can now grow and thrive as well as they would with growth promoters in the diet”.

Asda, Tesco and M&S are among supermarkets that have welcomed Grampian’s announcement, with Asda going so far as to request its other poultry suppliers to do the same. “We are delighted with Grampian’s move and we’ve notified all our UK poultry suppliers and asked them to trial the same approach,” an Asda spokesperson told edie.

But the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) was more cautious in its praise. “The whole industry is making a concerted effort to reduce antibiotic use,” a NFU spokesperson told edie. “Grampian’s obviously put a huge amount of money into this to make it work. Smaller enterprises may not have the funds to invest and we’re seriously concerned about an immediate withdrawal of antibiotics by smaller operators.”

The National Office of Animal Health (NOAH) – not a governmental department, but a trade association representing “UK companies which research, develop, manufacture and market licensed animal health products” – questions whether Grampian’s move is in the best interests of animal and human health. “It’s a very high risk strategy. It seems to be driven by a desire to brand Grampian’s own chicken meat,” a NOAH spokesperson told edie. “Chicken is an own-branded product in the UK, dominated by the supermarkets. This attempt to brand chicken by Grampian would give it more power.”

NOAH members worry about the potential health implications posed by the elimination of growth promoters. “It would be disappointing if this reduction in growth promotion use were to result in an increase in infection and therefore an increase in the therapeutic use of antibiotics – because that’s where the risk of antibiotic resistance has been proven. It has not been proven with growth promotion,” said the NOAH spokesperson.

NOAH cites the recently published Report on Microbial Antibiotic Resistance in Relation to Food Safety by the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ASMSF) when discussing the lack of evidence of antibiotic resistance arising from use of growth promoters (see related story). Nonetheless, the report’s overall conclusions called for “constraining the use of growth promoters”. Considering the potential danger posed by growth promoters, the ASMSF wrote that “in the past, growth promoters have been generally regarded as of no (or little) direct use in human clinical medicine. However, they are able to give rise to antibiotic resistance, in some cases in a way which could impact on the use of related substances in human medicine”.

The committee also noted that a World Health Organisation (WHO) meeting, held in 1997, called for the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in farm animals to be terminated if a similar product is employed for human therapeutic use or if it is known to select for cross-resistance to human antibiotics.

Increasing pressure on the Government and the UK veterinary profession to reduce the use of antibiotic exposure in farm animals has, thus far, failed to result in any firm deadlines or targets. A voluntary set of “best practice” guidelines were issued by the NFU and others in June (see related story). The Soil Association, the UK organic food campaigning group, criticised the guidelines as a “pr exercise”.

The ASMSF report described growth promoters as:

  • “antimicrobials used in low concentrations to stimulate an animal’s growth, resulting in increased daily live weight gain and feed conversion efficiency. The mode of action of growth promoters is thought to be associated with their effect on the composition and distribution of the intestinal microflora.”

Growth promoters are used extensively in the UK poultry and pork industries.

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