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KFC Is Ditching Antibiotic Chicken. But That's Hard To Prove

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Kentucky Fried Chicken will no longer use chickens treated with antibiotics also given to humans by 2019, the Louisville-based company announced on Friday.  They're responding to scientific evidence that shows antibiotic-resistant bacteria can get off farms and spread.

It’s a big win for consumer advocates, but some are worried the process the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses to verify that antibiotics stay out of chickens isn't rigorous enough.

KFC is one of the last big fast-food holdouts in the trend that started a few years ago, with chains like Subway and Chick-Fil-A ditching antibiotic chicken. The suppliers who raise the chickens for fast-food chains used antibiotics that are also used for humans.

And just like a doctor prescribing too many antibiotics can cause bacteria to morph into unstoppable and spreadable superbugs, the same happens on farms.

How USDA Checks

Farms that supply commercial chicken prove they’re no longer using antibiotics through a USDA program called "process verification." KFC will also assign these chickens individual identification numbers to track that its restaurants are only using those chickens.

Inspectors for the USDA program mainly check paperwork that shows antibiotics aren’t in feed, or prescriptions for when chickens do get antibiotics. They also visit hatcheries to ensure poultry aren't given antibiotics before or after birth.

But they don’t actually test the feed, meaning it's up to the companies themselves to properly report any antibiotic use.

“The verification program sounds like it should be something, but it’s just really a marketing program that allows companies to tout their product as being somehow better than someone else’s product in some fashion,” said Bill Marler, a prominent food safety attorney. “The USDA doesn’t spend time double checking if claims are actually true.”

The USDA program is, indeed, a marketing program. Other claims farms can apply for are "raised on independent farms," "no GMOs" and "cage-free." The agency refers to the program as a "desk audit."

Karin Hoelzer with the Pew Charitable Trusts said USDA will visit feed mills to review testing records and ensure requirements in the company’s quality manual are followed. But actual testing of feed doesn’t happen.

USDA did not return a request for comment.

KFC declined an interview request but supplied a statement:
"Our commitment allows suppliers to continue to raise healthy birds, and to treat chickens when they are sick – but the chickens we buy will not be treated with antibiotics important to human medicine. Antimicrobials specific to animals may be administered to treat pathogens or diseases. Our suppliers are required to utilize the USDA’s Process Verified program, to certify their chicken as not having been treated with antibiotics important to human medicine."

Running Afoul of USDA is Risky

Scott Eilert is vice president of food safety for turkey and other cooked meats at Cargill, which doesn't supply meat for Yum Brands, KFC's parent company.

In 2014, the company stopped using antibiotics to make turkeys grow faster, otherwise known as growth promotion. They went through the verification process with USDA, and Eilert said inspectors look at records that demonstrate they no longer use antibiotics for growth promotion.

“Are there a lot of feed tests taking place? No,” Eilert said. “But what they would do is look at records we have that demonstrate the batches of the feed, monitoring that says, ‘no we didn’t make any product that has an antibiotic in it.'”

Cargill is still using antibiotics for treatment and prevention of disease, which became uniform regulations by the Food and Drug Administration this year. Veterinarians who treat livestock now have to keep the prescriptions for treatment and prevention for two years, in the event that FDA will audit them.

With the USDA only checking records, and the FDA only checking prescriptions, there is a possibility that a producer could use antibiotics and just not document it, according to consumer advocates.

Mike Martin, communications director with Cargill Protein, said that’s a big risk, one that isn’t worth putting their business on the line.

“There would be a lot of downside risk and certainly no upside benefit to us, he said. "It’s our credibility and our reputation that is at stake. And we just wouldn’t do it."

Marler said the only way we’d know is through a whistleblower lawsuit, and through antibiotic testing of meat.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.