6 questions with Big Chicken author Maryn McKenna

”While the book is the story of this enormous problem that’s been building for decades, it’s also a chronicle of how we may be able to improve things.”
Maryn McKenna
Maryn McKenna

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

Atlanta journalist Maryn McKenna, who spent 10 years covering the CDC for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has a new book about how widespread antibiotic use in animals, particularly poultry, impacted and changed factory farming. She’ll attend the Georgia launch party for the book at Manuel’s Tavern at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 18. Below, she discusses the book with us:

I came away from your book with a mixture of terror and hope. The terror is that every year 700,000 people die worldwide from antibiotic resistance, a number that could go up to 10 million in the next 35 years. The hope is that companies like Perdue and Chick-fil-A are leading the way for real change, at least in the poultry industry. Which should we be feeling more of?
I think we should still be incredibly worried because the overuse of antibiotics, and consequently antibiotic resistance, is still a problem all around the globe in agriculture and in medicine. But it’s legitimate to feel hope now. This book started actually with my previous book, Superbug, where I told the story of the emergence of antibiotic resistance by writing the biography of one organism—staph—and how drug-resistant staph emerged. I thought it was going to be a story of two epidemics—how it began in hospitals because of how we’d misused antibiotics, and how this bug then moved out into the wider world. But I realized there were three epidemics—in hospitals, in the community, and in agriculture. But in that book I only got to tell the agriculture piece in one chapter. As bad as the situation in medicine was, the sheer volume of antibiotics in agriculture was so much bigger. Averaged across the globe, antibiotic use in agriculture is twice what it is in medicine and four times that in the U.S.

When I started reporting this in the summer of 2014, I thought I was writing another public health disaster book. But within the first year of my signing the book contract, things started to shift in the United States. While the book is the story of this enormous problem that’s been building for decades, it’s also a chronicle of how we may be able to improve things. And it’s about chickens because they were the first animals to get antibiotics as growth promoters, which is the basis of factory farming. Chickens appear to be the first sector of the protein industry that will exit antibiotic use. At least in the United States.

Is this trend away from antibiotics irreversible?
I think so, at least in poultry. Chick-fil-A and Perdue stepped out in front of the pack and said, “We’re going to change this.” Interestingly, at least to start with, neither of them said, “We’re going to change this because antibiotic resistance is a danger.” They just said, “We’re going to change this because our customers want us to.” Then other companies followed along behind them, one after another. Tyson, McDonald’s, Taco Bell. Almost all of the major poultry producers.

Yet you write that it appears antibiotic use in meat production in the U.S. has actually gone up in the last five or six years.
It appears that way based on the federal data. But we don’t actually know. All of the measures for antibiotic use in agriculture in the United States are all just proxy measures because none of them measure what is actually being given to an animal. Which species is it? What types of farm is it being raised on? We don’t have any of that data. All that we get is sales data from the pharma companies—what the tonnage is of antibiotics being sold for agricultural use. We can see that those totals are going up and up. We can’t necessarily see what’s going to pigs, cattle, or chickens.

Separate USDA data shows that 40 to 50 percent of the poultry farms surveyed have ceased using most antibiotics. So, if the USDA data is saying that poultry is using fewer antibiotics, but the FDA data shows that the sales of all are going up, it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s the other species receiving the drugs—cattle and pigs, primarily.

Talk a little bit about the dual use of antibiotics in animals.
The first thing to remember is that we only take them when we’re sick, right? The point of an antibiotic is to cure an infection. Most of the antibiotic use in animals is not for that reason. If we did in humans what we did in animals, we would consider it inappropriate if it’s not intended to cure an infection.

Most antibiotics are given to meat animals for two reasons. The first is that very small doses—much smaller than would be used to cure an infection—cause them to gain weight and to specifically gain muscle mass.

[The practice] is affecting what we would call the gut microbiome—the community of bacteria that lives in the guts of every living thing—and changing how nutrition is processed and absorbed. The industry discovered in the 1940s that if you gave tiny doses of antibiotics to animals—mere grams per ton of feed—then you could either get them to the weight at which you wanted to sell them quicker using the same amount of feed, or you could use less feed and be raising them from the same amount of time. So either way we were incurring an economic benefit.

It turned out that if you raised that dose, from say, 10 grams a ton to about 200 grams a ton, it would also protect the animals against incurring an infection. That first achievement of growth promotion starts the ball rolling for the whole sector of factory farming, where barns get bigger and many more animals get put into barns and the more you put them together, the more likelihood there is that they’re going to get sick.

As the movement accelerated to phase out antibiotics, how did Georgia poultry farms adjust?
We raise more chickens than any other state in the union. If we were an independent country we would be, like, the fourth-largest chicken economy in the world.

In Georgia there are both extremely conventional chicken farmers who continue to use antibiotics, continue to keep their birds inside of old barns, raise them for 35 to 42 days. There are also farmers who are contracted to companies that are starting to rethink if that’s the best way, like Perdue. They’re still asking their farmers to raise birds at a very high volume, but they have effectively eliminated antibiotics. They’ve changed the birds’ diets and the physical structure of the barns—putting windows in the barns and giving the birds things to exercise and climb on—so they have some requirements other than just sitting in place and growing.

We always want to lionize the small producers, which embody the best possible experience for the animals. But it’s big companies changing their minds—like when Walmart started selling organic produce and companies like Perdue started saying, “We’re going to do this without antibiotics”—that really moves a market.

You begin and end the book with anecdotes about eating a succulent chicken—first in Paris, and then in Brooklyn, and how different they tasted from factory-farmed chicken. But you don’t talk about cost.
The big question for chicken—and for any meat that goes antibiotic-free—is a question that faces all of food production: Is better, safer food going to be something that only well-off people can afford? That hangs over all of these transformations of food systems.

Read our excerpt from Big Chicken: Consumers want antibiotic-free chicken. Can companies and farmers afford it?

This article originally appeared in our September 2017 issue.