Award-winning journalist Maryn McKenna talks about her latest book, Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats. (Part 2 of 2)
Award-winning journalist Maryn McKenna talks about her latest book, Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats. And increased the problem of antibiotic resistance. [Part 2 of 2]
Steve Mirsky: [music] Hi, Steve Mirsky here. Welcome back for part two of my conversation with Maryn McKenna, author of Big Chicken.
Let’s talk about Whitten, since I brought him up. He’s this very powerful congressman who they’re trying to get some kind of standards in place to govern the use of antibiotics in agriculture. And England had already decided that that was the way to go, and so that was a model that people here were trying to put into effect. But Whitten was really pro-industry, and thought he was doing a big favor to them by blocking this if he could.
Maryn McKenna: Yeah, this is a heart-breaking story. So, let me fill in some of the back story. So, those first outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant illness that start to prove that there’s really a problem in these new production practices, the first ones are perceived in England. And I’m not really sure why that is, but having grown up in England, I’m going to assume that the reason is that in England, being a geographically smaller place, urban life and agriculture are much more interpenetrated.
I mean, the town that I grew up in, you didn’t have to travel very far from my boarding school to see cows and pigs and sheep. It’s just – they were very close by. Not like the United States, where we’ve sequestered the centers of our agriculture in the center of the country very far away from the major urban centers. So, England starts to see outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant food-borne illness. They trace them back to farms.
And in 1969, England – the United Kingdom – becomes the first nation to put some controls on this practice. They empanel a commission. It takes two years. It reports out that England really should ban growth promoters. They should ban this use of antibiotics only to put weight on animals. And though there’s a ferocious debate about it, in 1971, the British Parliament does, in fact, ban growth promoters.
And now the ban has a lot of problems and it’s undermined as soon as possible by industry, but it starts a trend. And in Europe, that’s followed by the Scandinavian countries in the 1980s, most of the European Union by 1999, and a full ban of growth promoters in 2006 in the European Union. But that first ban in 1969 and ’71, all eyes immediately turn to the United States, still the largest – at that point, the largest economic and agricultural power.
And people start to ask, “What are we going to do?” So, the Carter administration comes in in 1976 with a whole, just like boat loads of earnest, young reformers. And one of them is Dr. Donald Kennedy, who, at the time, is a professor at Stanford, and years later would go on to be the president of Stanford University. He is put in charge of the FDA, and he has a whole long portfolio of things that he wants to tackle from tobacco to sugar substitutes, but he also wants to tackle antibiotics.
And in 1977, he announces that he wants to hold hearings in which the manufacturers of veterinary antibiotics will have to show up and prove that there is nothing wrong with the uses of their drugs, that there is no public health risk. And if they cannot, to his satisfaction, prove that there is no public health risk, then he is going to direct his agency, the FDA, to withdraw the licenses for agricultural use of antibiotics that the FDA granted back in the ‘50s for growth promoters and for preventive use.
And he puts a big notice in the federal register in the end of 1977, and it reads to me now like a legal brief. It is very precisely argued. It’s very abundantly footnoted. They are clearly ready for battle, which is a battle that they don’t get to have, because this congressman, Jamie Whitten, who is supported by and backed by very prominent agricultural interests, does a very political thing.
He contacts the White House through back channels, and he says, “This cannot go forward. And if you go forward in this crusade against agricultural antibiotics and the large-scale agriculture that they support, I will hold the entire FDA’s budget hostage.” And so, the Carter administration, the Carter White House, which has a lot of other reforms that it wants to take on board, sends a message down to the FDA that that hearing cannot go forward. So, that’s in 1977. And the stalemate between industry and government continues for just about 30 years.
Mirsky: But what’s really interesting now, and we could talk about this for hours, and the book is fascinating because it’s got everything in it. It’s got microbiology, it’s got agriculture, it’s got politics, it has chicanery, it has heroes and villains.
It’s got Stewart Levy who everybody who does what we do for a living has heard at conferences for decades talking about this stuff. But an amazing thing, an actual good thing, has started to happen in the last decade or so where these chicken companies and other agricultural organizations as well, but places like Chick-fil-A, who have other political issues that we all know about, but Chick-fil-A, Perdue – I had no idea that they guy who runs Perdue, who’s the grandson of the original Perdue, had a PhD in fisheries management.
So, you know, he actually has studied some science and knows some stuff. So, these places along with some other places are voluntarily now giving up the antibiotics as growth promoters. They’re still going to be able to use antibiotics when an animal is legitimately ill, but they’re not going to – and part of it is probably because these things aren’t working so great any more, too. But they’re really doing it, which is, itself, kind of amazing.
McKenna: So, one of the reasons why I wanted to spend four years of my life pursuing this book, you know, because when you decide to commit to a book, you realize that you’re going to have to live with it for a good long time. So, you know, my career has been in global health and public health, and basically, most of the stories that I write, and my other books all kind of come down to, “Oh god, we’re all going to die.” Right? Like, epidemics and disasters, that’s my jam.
But here, in this story of how antibiotic use and agriculture went so wrong, the narrative arc turns up at the end. There actually is some good news. It’s not, you know, it’s qualified good news. We still have a lot of problems in front of us. But, so when Europe did those bans in 2006, and found in some countries in Europe that they had to take extra actions after that and did it. But in the United States, the home of this intransigence for decades about antibiotic use, things started to shift.
And two different sets of things happened. The first is that Jamie Whitten finally retires after – he was at the time he retired, the longest-ever serving member of the House of Representatives, more than 50 years in the House. And I suspect that he probably wanted to stick around longer and they were kind of like, “No, I’m sorry, Mr. Whitten. It’s time to go.”
So, he retires. The Obama administration comes in, and it’s really interesting to me that I don’t think this is going to be appreciated for a long time, but it turns out that government attention to antibiotic resistance is going to turn out to be one of the legacies of the Obama administration.
People think of other things that the Obama administration did that was much more high profile, but in the Obama administration, we get, for the first time, a national strategy for combatting antibiotic resistance, a presidential council looking at that strategy, an executive order of the president directing action on antibiotic resistance, the first-ever White House summit on antibiotic resistance.
Mirsky: And let’s give some props to Louise Slaughter, a congresswoman from upstate New York who actually has a degree in microbiology.
McKenna: Congress’s only microbiologist. She has been fighting the good fight for long before the Obama administration came in. Every term, she brings forth a bill that is known as PAMTA, Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, that would remove from agriculture any antibiotic that is also used in human medicine. And every year, the bill doesn’t get as far as hearings. And every year she brings it back again. She is indefatigable.
So, she’s in the background. In fact, she calls a hearing not long after the first Obama administration, and she invites members of this administration to come and tell her what they’re going to do about this problem that she’s been banging on about, that no one has been listening to her about. And to everyone’s shock, the director of the FDA – she’s out of the country, so her deputy shows up and says, “Oh yeah. We’re going to ask the industry to renounce growth promoter antibiotics.”
And what he says in a kind of shot across the bow diction is, “We have the regulatory tools to take this away from them if they don’t play ball with us.” And suddenly, the industry, which has been very comfortable for a very long time, thanks to champions like Congressman Whitten, has to take another look at what it’s doing. And what that results in is, by the end of 2013, a set of what are called guidances, which are not laws and not regulations with the force of law, but a kind of ostensibly voluntary arm twisting by the FDA, by which growth promoter antibiotics are removed from American agriculture.
They do it in a very interesting way. Instead of going after farmers, they – or after meat production companies, they go after the veterinary farmer manufacturers, and ask them to change the labels on their drugs so the drugs can’t be used that way anymore. So, they’re really – they’re going after the supply side instead of the demand side. It’s a really innovative tactic. And amazingly, everybody plays ball, so that by January 1st, 2017, this year, growth promoter antibiotics for the first time were effectively no longer legal in the United States.
And the preventive use of antibiotics is still legal. It’s supposed to be conducted under the oversight of veterinarians. Whether that’s going to work or not is not clear. People might be able to skate around that. It’s clear in Europe that that’s what happened until they tightened their regulations more. But, the thing that I think is most interesting and important is the reason that all of this worked, that I think the Obama administration felt empowered and that the companies felt they had to fall in line is that consumer pressure was really growing.
Starting from about 2010, maybe 2012, there’s a whole series of actions that kind of roll up together into a wave. Very large medical centers – for instance, University of California San Francisco say to the meat production companies, “We are no longer going to buy meat raised with the routine use of antibiotics because we have immune compromised people in our hospitals.
And if there’s antibiotic resistant bacteria on what we’re feeding them, we are endangering them.” Then, very large school systems – the first is the Chicago school system, which I think is the third largest in the country – says the same thing. “We’re not buying meat raised with the routine use of antibiotics.” And after that, the ball really gets rolling, and prominent chefs and non-profits that are concerned with food production and with the protection of public health in the United States.
And just, you know, average parents, moms going up to Congress and saying, “You will not do this to my children’s food anymore. And, to me, that consumer movement is really what empowers the government action that we see. And, more importantly, it really makes the companies change their mind. And, you mentioned Perdue Foods. I am really struck by this. I mean, as a journalist, I’m kind of naturally inclined to be suspicious of big corporations.
But in 2014, Jim Perdue, the grandson of the founder, the son of Frank, the, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” whom everybody of a certain age remembers as being defending his chicken on television,” Jim Perdue stands up at a press conference that he has called at the National Press Club in Washington DC, and says, “We’re not using any antibiotics in our chicken and we haven’t been doing that since 2007.”
And it is a shock to the rest of the industry. Because here this legacy company, the fourth largest chicken company in America, privately owned, so they can do this, has just basically marched away from lockstep with the rest of the industry, and said, “We are convinced that this is what our customers want, and so we’re going to do it.”
And at just about the same time, Chick-fil-A, the chicken sandwich people, cult chicken sandwich, where I live in the south, they are one of Perdue’s customers. And they get the idea they want to serve antibiotic-free chicken. And it’s very interesting that neither of these companies make an explicit statement about, “We don’t want to contribute to antibiotic resistance.” What they say is, “We want to do what our customers want.”
And after them comes the wave. McDonald’s and Tyson and Costco and Walmart and Cargill and Subway and Taco Bell, and eventually one of the last hold-outs, KFC. There are now very few companies in the United States that are not touting that they are buying chicken that is not raised with routine antibiotic use.
And, in fact, there’s one company in the south, Sanderson Farms, which is a chicken production company, a competitor to Perdue – they’re actually making a marketing strategy out of sticking with antibiotics. They think that’s going to work for them. We will see if the market judges in their favor or not.
Mirsky: Well, it’s a great story. It’s a detective story. It’s history. It’s great. But the really key question I want to ask you is as a resident of New York City, where can I get one of these really delicious chickens?
McKenna: So, alongside the movement away from antibiotics, and really sort of as a result of the movement away from antibiotics has come to be an interest in unwinding some of those other effects that we perpetrated on chicken. So, there’s actually, there’s a movement now. It’s spear-headed by a non-profit called the Global Animal Partnership.
For very large food service and food production companies, people like Whole Foods, for instance, to insist on buying chickens that are allowed to live a little bit longer. Most of the chickens we eat in the United States are killed at about 42 days of age. And they’re fully grown at that point, so that’s the effect of antibiotics and of the precision breeding and nutrition that has been going on since the ‘50s is that they are enormous.
They are – I looked up the numbers the other day. There’s a university – I think it’s in Canada – that keeps samples of the populations of the genetics of chicken that were extant in the 1950s, the 1970s, and in 2005. So, they haven’t been bread further than whatever chickens were in 1957. They’ve kept the genetics stable, and the same for 1978. At 56 days of age, the 1957 chicken weighs 905 grams. That’s a little less than two pounds.
The 2005 chicken at 56 days of age weighs 4,202 grams. That’s more than nine pounds. That’s what antibiotics and precision genetics and enhanced nutrition do. So, there is this movement now, even a mass market movement, to allow birds to live a little longer, to, even in the sheds that they are still raised in, to have a little more exercise, maybe things to hop up on and bounce up and down on, to have windows in the barns so they can have natural light, and to have a few hours of actual dark every night.
Perdue, again, is one of the first companies to sign on to this. And what that’s doing is both at the farm level and also sort of wholesaler level is opening up the market to other kinds of chicken – to chickens that are raised fully on pasture, like grass-fed beef, to chickens that are allowed to live a little longer, whose genetics go back to heritage strains. And, there really are only a few chicken genetics companies in the entire world, but they all produce all these different strains from the most industrial to the most heritage.
So, now, in New York, one of those companies is represented by a couple of the wholesalers. The genetics company is called Sasso, S-A-S-S-O. And one of their competitors is called what looks like Hubbard, like Mother Hubbard, but it’s actually Ubar, because it’s French. And both of those are selling to restaurants and to some sort of high-end grocers and delis the longer-lived, better-balanced, more exercised chickens.
And when you do all of that, when you allow them to behave more like chickens, to have a more upright carriage, to not be so overloaded with muscle, to go outside once in a while to have some exercise jumping up and down on bales and things like that, to have natural sunlight, it turns out that they taste better. [music starts]
Mirsky: That’s it for this episode. Get your science news at our website, www.ScientificAmerican.com. And don’t forget to also visit our friends at the Nature website, www.Nature.com, where you can check out the Nature podcast, which just posted their 500th episode. And it’s a clip show. Everybody loves clip shows. This one features highlights of their coverage over the last 10 years. Give it a listen. And back to SciAm, follow us on Twitter. Our Twitter name is @SciAm. For Scientific American’s Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us. [Music continues, with chickens clucking.]