Jim Perdue is the chairman of Perdue Farms and the third generation to lead the 95-year-old, family-owned and -operated company. Perdue Foods offers several lines of chicken, turkey, and pork products to consumers, while Perdue AgriBusiness focuses on marketing, processing, and exporting various agricultural commodities for feed, food, and fuel use at home and abroad.
Perdue recently appeared in headlines with the news that its hatcheries had eliminated the use of human antibiotics. Jim Perdue took some time to answer questions we posed about how and why the company made this move and what impact it has had for consumers and for the company itself.
U.S. Agriculture Outlook: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released guidelines in December 2013 for reduced use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, but according to an interview with NPR in September 2014, your company has been working on phasing out human antibiotic use in your hatcheries for a dozen years. What prompted Perdue to begin that process so far ahead of the government’s regulations?
Jim Perdue: Our decision to look at changing how we use antibiotics was not driven by any one event or piece of information. It was a result of listening to our consumers as well as observing what was going on in the scientific and regulatory communities. In 1996, the federal government established the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System for Enteric Bacteria to begin monitoring resistance to antibiotics. In 2001, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its “Judicious Use of Antimicrobials for Poultry Veterinarians.” At the same time, we were seeing an increase in consumer inquiries about antibiotic use. We know our consumers are concerned and we are concerned, so we decided to see if we could successfully raise chickens using fewer antibiotics. And we’ve found that we can.
We focused first on removing growth-promoting antibiotics. We began phasing them out in 2002, and by 2007, we had successfully removed all human antibiotics from our feed. We do treat to prevent common illnesses using ionophores, a type of animal-only antimicrobial not used in human medicine. But we have been decreasing our use of even this “animal only” antibiotic in the past several years, primarily due to our increase in our “no antibiotics ever” raised chickens.
The final step in our journey toward reduced antibiotics use was eliminating their use in the hatchery, a process that began in 2009 and culminated in the summer of 2014. Most hatcheries typically use small amounts of antibiotics when vaccinating the eggs. This use is even allowed by the USDA National Organic Program – though we don’t allow it in our organic products.
It required investing in our hatcheries to create a clean environment to be able to successfully vaccinate eggs without antibiotics. It took us several years to get to zero. It is not something we’d recommend doing overnight as it can have adverse effects on bird health and food safety if not done carefully.
But it’s important to remember that no matter how carefully you raise animals, some are going to be exposed to infections that can only be treated with antibiotics. We have a responsibility to properly treat those animals. Regardless of the program, should animals become ill – including organic and no-antibiotics-ever – they will be treated as medically appropriate as part of Perdue’s animal welfare commitment. However, if antibiotics are used, those animals are not marketed as no-antibiotics-ever or organic.
What have been the biggest challenges for Perdue in adopting practices that reduce or completely eliminate human antibiotic use?
This is not something that you simply turn a switch to implement; it’s more than just taking human antibiotics out of your programs. It requires programs from breeder operations, through the hatchery and feed mill and onto the farm, that are sustainable without that use. It includes things like focusing on breeder hen health to start with a healthier chick, creating a “clean” environment in the hatchery, and improving the diet. We feed an all-vegetarian diet, which in our experience is helpful for running a no- or low-antibiotic program. We also worked on a better and more successful vaccination program, and are using more pre- and probiotics.
What have Perdue’s and the government’s policies in regard to human antibiotic use meant for the farms and farm personnel on the ground raising your chickens?
Our chickens are raised by independent family farmers under contract. We provide veterinary and poultry management support for the famers. With a focus on reducing antibiotic use, our poultry health programs are targeted on disease prevention. That may require that we work on specific issues with a farmer – specific to their farm and even to a specific house on their farm, if necessary – to be sure they are providing the best growing conditions. It requires greater attention to detail at the farm level.
Can you please tell us a bit about Perdue’s No-Antibiotics-Ever program? When was it developed? How does it work? How has it fared in the marketplace?
In 2007, Perdue Foods launched the Harvestland® brand, a no-antibiotics-ever product line. That was a major learning experience for us. No-antibiotics-ever was a very small part of the market, but it gave the opportunity to learn what it takes to successfully run such a program. And we took those learnings and applied them across our entire company to reduce our overall antibiotic use. “No antibiotics ever” means just that – not in the hatchery, not in the feed, not in the water. Harvestland® is still a small but growing part of our business.
In 2011, Perdue acquired Coleman Natural Foods, adding organic chicken and no-antibiotics-ever turkey, pork, and beef. So after 12 years of working on it, we now have three approaches – reduced use, no-antibiotics-ever, and organic – that consumers can trust to provide appropriate stewardship of antibiotics and responsible animal care.
What has been the response from consumers to Perdue’s efforts to decrease the use of human antibiotics on its birds?
We received a lot of positive feedback when we announced our most recent step of eliminating hatchery use. And when someone calls or emails, or as happens more and more, posts a question on Facebook, they appreciate that Perdue®, a brand they trust, has already responded to their concerns in this area.
I read that Perdue has not used antibiotics for growth promotion purposes since 2007. What effect has that had on the size of Perdue birds? On what alternative methods has Perdue relied to grow the largest chickens it can?
The size of our birds hasn’t changed but it does take our birds several days longer on average to reach market weight. A highly digestible diet coupled with good gut health – an all-vegetarian diet that is easier on the digestive system, more use of pre- and probiotics – help improve feed conversion. A comfortable, low-stress housing environment provides the optimal growing environment for the birds.
What economic effect has the reduced use of antibiotics had on your company? Is it more expensive to raise birds without those drugs?
It costs more to raise chickens with fewer antibiotics. For instance, an all-vegetable diet is more expensive than one with animal byproducts. Additionally, when adjusted for size, we spend $4 million more a year on vaccines than our competitors. We also use more probiotics, which add to our costs. Our customers and consumers generally understand that quality products may cost more.
As the CEO of a company that has managed to make moves away from antibiotics, what would you say to other company leaders or farmers that balk at FDA regulations intended to phase out the use of human antibiotics in animal agriculture?
Our track record shows that we don’t need regulation for us to change our practices in order to do the right thing. We stopped using fluoroquinolones, a medically important antibiotic, four years before the FDA banned its use. We were among the first to phase out the use of arsenic in chicken feed, well before its market withdrawal. If you look at the various proposed legislation at the local, state, or federal level, we would be compliant with all of them and have been since 2008. We’re always going to be guided by consumers and earning their trust. That is what has worked for us for 95 years and I don’t see that changing.