Consumers want antibiotic-free chicken. Can companies and farmers afford it?

In this excerpt from her new book Big Chicken, Atlanta journalist Maryn McKenna explores how consumer demand is forcing huge companies, such as Perdue and Chick-fil-A, to go antibiotic-free
Big Chicken

Photograph © Chris Williams/Blackbox

The first pages of Big Chicken are terrifying. Maryn McKenna examines the case of a 51-year-old man named Rick Schiller, who was admitted to a California emergency room in 2013 with a fever and his right leg puffed up to three times its normal size. The swelling was so severe, in fact, that the doctor thought his skin might split. It wasn’t until the doctor inserted a needle the size of a pencil lead—the third needle she tried—and withdrew the plunger that something started coming out. Schiller looked down in horror. “The barrel was filled with something red and heavy,” McKenna writes. “He thought it looked like meat.”

Schiller was the victim of a salmonella outbreak that had sickened hundreds of Americans across 29 states. Not only was this outbreak linked to chicken, but the strain of salmonella was also stubbornly resistant to the normal courses of antibiotics that would otherwise have knocked it out.

As McKenna explains in Big Chicken, the growing emergence of “superbugs”—bacteria immune to even the strongest antibiotics—is not just a natural consequence of over-prescribing them in humans, but also of feeding them to chickens to fatten them up faster. Indeed, most antibiotics sold in the United States go to chickens to make them gain weight. McKenna, who spent a decade covering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, dives deep into the history of how scientists first made the connection between antibiotics and animal farming, and the results it’s had on factory farming today. The news isn’t all bad—impelled by a more educated consumer, big buyers of poultry are demanding that farmers grow their chickens without antibiotics.

Big Chicken by Maryn McKenna
Big Chicken

Big Chicken published by National Geographic Partners, LLC, September 12, 2017. Copyright © 2017 by Maryn McKenna

An excerpt from Big Chicken
From the first generation of the food movement in the 1970s, small local companies—Bread & Circus in Massachusetts, for instance, and Mrs. Gooch’s in California—had competed to buy and offer what at the time were limited supplies of organic meat and poultry. (“Organic” mostly overlaps with “antibiotic-free,” though the federal National Organic Standards created by USDA in 2002 ban antibiotics only from the second day of a broiler’s life.) On the supply side, sausage maker Applegate Farms was a pioneer; it began making antibiotic-free cured and processed meats in the 1990s. In food service, Panera Bread Co. began serving antibiotic-free chicken in 2004. But it was really the success of Whole Foods Market, founded in 1980, and Chipotle Mexican Grill, founded in 1993, that demonstrated how large the market for meat raised without antibiotics was likely to be.

Whole Foods pledged “no antibiotics” from the start, saying it would refuse animals that received growth promoters or preventive dosing, as well as animals that had received antibiotics to cure diseases. Chipotle founded its operations on a promise of “Food With Integrity”: locally grown produce and meats from animals that lived in good welfare conditions and did not receive antibiotics. Both of those companies did so well that they were able to create their own supply chains of produce growers, processed-food makers, and livestock farmers; Whole Foods brought additional farmers into antibiotic-free growing by offering farm loans.

Their success did not immediately persuade very large food businesses to follow them; selling meat raised without antibiotics seemed as much a niche market as organic produce once had been. But out of public view, companies were perceiving the market growing and laying groundwork to enter it. The first to go public, beating Perdue’s announcement by months, was one that almost no one would have predicted. In February 2014, the Southern sandwich chain Chick-fil-A declared that it would relinquish all antibiotics in its chicken within five years.

Chick-fil-A’s headquarters lies just outside Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The company is privately held and openly Christian. It requires its restaurants to close on Sunday; its corporate motto, “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us,” is engraved on a plaque outside the headquarters’ front door. Its chief executive officer generated tremendous publicity, most of it negative, by expressing biblically based opposition to same-sex marriage. But in a quiet, Southern way, Chick-fil-A is a poultry powerhouse. By sales, it is both the eighth-largest fast food chain in the United States and the largest with a menu based on chicken. Its sales are larger than the U.S. division of rival KFC, and its individual locations earn more per restaurant than McDonald’s.

Chicken is all that Chick-fil-A sells, barring beverages and salads and a few outlier breakfast items; its menu includes no burgers, no chili, no fried fish or shrimp. So the company keeps a close eye on where consumer preferences are headed. Thirty years after Whole Foods opened and almost 20 years after Chipotle debuted, those leanings were visibly shifting—not just in the choices of individual shoppers but also in the contracts written by big institutional buyers, which can create or change markets. In 2010, a coalition of 300 hospitals across the country announced they would no longer buy meat raised with routine antibiotic use. In 2011, the Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the country, converted to antibiotic-free chicken. In 2013, the academic senate of the University of California San Francisco (which, in addition to the university, operates the city’s largest hospital) voted for its food procurement to go antibiotic-free and urged the rest of the University of California system to follow its lead.

Chick-fil-A’s announcement was the first signal that poultry production was breaking with the rest of the American meat industry; Perdue’s, seven months later, was the second. One after another, major food service companies and poultry integrators fell in line behind them. McDonald’s shook the market by announcing in March 2015 that it was going antibiotic-free for chicken in all of its North American restaurants; Subway followed in October 2015. Costco put its buying power behind chicken raised without routine antibiotics in March 2015, and Walmart in May 2015. Poultry producer Pilgrim’s Pride said in April 2015 that it would take 25 percent of its birds antibiotic-free. Foster Farms, the company that had been dogged by foodborne illness outbreaks, committed in June 2015. And Tyson Foods, the largest chicken company in North America, announced in April 2015 that it had already eliminated human use antibiotics in 80 percent of its broiler production (including its hatcheries), with the plan of being antibiotic-free within two years.

Though they all phrased their moves as relinquishing routine antibiotics, the companies were not all committing to the same actions. Tyson continued to use ionophores, the drug family that the European Union had allowed in chickens when it banned growth promoters; McDonald’s said it would accept use of those drugs by its suppliers. But Perdue committed to doing away with ionophores. Chick-fil-A, which buys chicken from Perdue and four other major companies, set a strict standard. It told its suppliers that it would not be acceptable to use antibiotics at any point in a bird’s life—not even ionophores and not even for treatment of illness. Suppliers would have to undergo an annual audit to prove compliance.

Implementing that was not simple, and what Chick-fil-A went through to secure antibiotic-free chicken illustrates how the turn away from conventional raising will challenge the poultry industry. But the company presented its decision as a move the market demanded; in proprietary research, 70 percent of its customers said they were concerned about antibiotic use on farms. Chick-fil-A could try to lead the way or be left behind.

Chick-fil-A estimates that it buys roughly 250 million pounds of chicken per year. Before making its announcement, the chain’s leadership met with all five of its poultry suppliers to see if they could meet the demand.

“In a perfect world, we’d be able to flip a switch,” David Farmer, the chain’s vice president for menu strategy and development, told me at the Atlanta headquarters a few months after the company announced its no-antibiotics pledge. “But that’s not the reality. The goal is we’re going to get there within five years, 20 percent of our supply per year.”

To start, Farmer admitted, they would have to spend more money. Birds raised without routine antibiotics command a higher price, and it was a challenge to figure out whether any of that expense could be passed on to customers. Then the company would have to simplify complexities built into its sourcing, backstage decisions that would never be visible to a customer. For instance, Chick-fil-A had never embraced the industry trend of larger and larger chickens, since if a breast was too big, it would overwhelm the signature sandwich. But it also sells fried chicken tenders, and because tenders are actually breast muscles—the pectoralis minor, tucked up against the breastbone—ones that came from birds with the right size of breast for a sandwich were too small to make a good mouthful. A few years earlier, it had begun ordering only tenders from integrators whose farmers raised bigger birds. Now, confronting the relative scarcity of poultry raised without antibiotics, Chick-fil-A would have to embrace a beak-to-tail philosophy, with the goal of buying and using whole birds. Finding places to use the meat they had not previously bought might require debuting new dishes or changing the cooking procedures for items they already offered: adding antibiotic-free chicken to a soup in a restaurant, for example, instead of buying it from a contractor completely premade.

If, at the beginning of 2014, you had asked food movement leaders which company would lead the business away from antibiotics, it is a safe bet that no one would have nominated Chick-fil-A. It is axiomatic, if seldom spoken, that food activism arises in liberal coastal enclaves and seeps slowly into the red states. Chick-fil-A’s executives and its customers are churchgoing, big-box-shopping, college-football-watching conservatives, a constituency not necessarily attuned to animal welfare or antibiotic resistance. (It is likely that some of those churches preach suspicion of evolution, even though antibiotic resistance is evolution in real time.) But for just that reason, the company’s conversion was thrilling to see. It demonstrated that concern about farm antibiotic use—and the changes in farm operations that reducing antibiotics would cause—could cross cultural fractures and party lines.

When I asked Farmer whether Chick-fil-A’s move away from antibiotics meant it was endorsing the connection between farm use and resistance, he elided the question. “It was not our intent to enter into the scientific debate: Does this cause antibiotic resistance or not?” he told me. He framed the action instead as a task in line with the company’s Christian focus, honoring the responsibility that the biblical book of Genesis gave humanity: over “the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth.”

“It’s not about shareholder value,” Farmer told me. “It’s about faithful stewardship. We’re compelled to try to do the right thing for the right reasons.”

Big Chicken
“If you had asked food movement leaders which company would lead the business away from antibiotics, it is a safe bet that no one would have nominated Chick-fil-A.” —excerpted from Maryn McKenna’s Big Chicken

Photograph by Sam Kaplan/Trunk Archive

“I never planned on chickens,” Will Harris III said. We were sitting in a Jeep Wrangler, splashed halfway up the side panels with red mud. The Jeep was parked on the side of a deep green pasture, and in the pasture, there were several thousand broilers. The birds were rusty-feathered and glossy, with red combs and yellow legs. They were scratching and pecking in the wet grasses and lounging under rectangular awnings attached to cream-colored coops that looked like tiny garages. There were groupings of coops in the field, scattered as though they had popped up like mushrooms: six here, four there, another batch by the distant fence line. On the far side of the fence there were cattle, black with a glint of red where the sun caught their hides. Beyond the cattle was the heart of Harris’s farm, White Oak Pastures: offices and corrals and USDA-approved abattoirs. Beyond those, out of sight from where we were parked, were 3,000 acres holding rabbits and sheep and pigs and goats, turkeys and ducks and geese, guinea hens and laying hens, vegetables, fruits and bees, and more broilers, all on lush grass.

Harris is the fourth generation to operate White Oak, which lies tucked into the thinly populated western edge of Georgia, an hour south of the military traffic to Fort Benning and 40 minutes north of the Florida state line. His family has been on the property since his great-grandfather, James Edward Harris, fled the collapse of the Confederacy and founded a subsistence farm in 1866 outside the town of Bluffton. Over the decades, it grew into a substantial cattle ranch, helped along by every 20th-century development that fueled the growth of American agriculture: chemical fertilizers and pesticides to maintain a monoculture of grass, and hormone implants, artificial insemination, and antibiotics to maintain a monoculture of cattle. Harris inherited that operation and expanded it, following every precept he had learned studying animal science at the University of Georgia. He had worked on the farm for almost 20 years when he began to hear a whisper of conscience: Maybe he should go a different way.

Over the course of the next 20 years, Harris and his wife and daughters and their employees—there are about 135 of them now—remade their single-species conventional farm into the largest certified organic property in the southeastern United States: a multispecies, pasture-based, zero-waste laboratory for sustainability and innovation. Including chickens in that process was crucial to the farm’s success. It proved that poultry can be shaken free not only from antibiotic use, but also from fast-growth genetics and industrialized production.

White Oak Pastures, and a few other businesses that have emerged without notice beyond the edges of the conventional industry, embody what poultry production can look like as it moves away from antibiotics. The new models are humane, personal, and ambitious. But they are not perfect. To different degrees, they demonstrate the limits of businesses that are not part of Big Chicken, and they pose questions—not yet answered—about how the market will respond to them.

“I never owned a creature with feathers before January 2010—not so much as a parakeet,” Harris told me. “Then we bought a batch of 500, and now we have 60,000 on the ground at a time. But I can’t say if this will get bigger. I think it will be slow.”

Harris, who had passed 60, looks like a cattleman. He is sturdy and calm, wears a goatee and shaves his head, and is never seen in public without boots and a white Stetson, deeply creased from front to back. But he sounds like a forceful, slightly bawdy preacher—of sustainability, not religion. (“I was deep into the industrial model, but I am like a reformed prostitute now,” he told me once. “I have the zeal of the converted.” In his southwest Georgia accent, so different from the stereotypical southern drawl, the word hissed through his teeth: zeeeeel.) His change of heart was no lightning bolt on the road to Damascus. It arrived slowly over years, as he imagined his farm from his animals’ point of view.

“I had been taught that good animal welfare meant keeping them fed and watered and not intentionally inflicting pain or discomfort,” he said when I first met him in mid-2012. “That’s like saying good parenting would be taking your child and locking them in a closet. You give them plenty of food and leave the lights on and keep the heat at 72 degrees. They’re not going to get bit by animals or stung by wasps or get their leg broke playing ball. So that’s good parenting, right? But it’s not. And good animal welfare is not just keeping them from suffering. It’s creating an environment in which animals can express their instinctive behavior.”

The first step in Harris’s evolution away from his family’s farming tradition was opening his corrals and putting his Angus-based herd on grass, forgoing the grain he had been feeding them and letting them get their nutrition naturally. Next to go were the hormones and antibiotics. Then he withdrew the synthetic fertilizers that kept his pastures green year-round.

And then he ran into trouble. There were plants—he would have called them weeds a short time before, when he was spraying every day to maintain his Tifton 85 Bermuda, a sterile hybrid hay—that the cows did not care to eat. When the animals chomped down the tasty competition, the weeds threatened to overwhelm the fields. So Harris purchased a flock of sheep to eat the weeds. That was a bold step for a cow guy; in the 19th century, cattle owners had driven sheep herders out of western states with violence. But his new sheep, a meat breed that did not need shearing, gave him a second animal to harvest and fit well into the farm. Too well, maybe: Both the weeds and the grasses were being eaten down now, and the pastures were covered with sheep dung and cow pies.

Enter the chickens. If they lived in the pastures as chickens evolved to do, they would forage for seeds and insects, breaking up the dung piles for tasty worms and fly larvae and contributing their own high-nitrogen droppings to encourage fresh vegetation.

Harris found a hatchery in Alabama that dealt in heritage birds and slow-growing hybrids and asked them to send some chicks. He got 508. He picked a pasture, set up a mobile coop, plopped in the birds, and waited to see what would happen. By the time they reached a marketable weight—12 weeks, twice as long as an industrial chicken—506 had survived, and the area within the fence was transformed, lush and green with no visible cow pies. Harris slaughtered the first batch and ordered more. After trying several varieties—including a fast-growing industrial bird, which he describes mostly by swearing—he settled on an energetic bird called the Red Ranger, a cross of several heritage breeds.

By adding the sheep and then the chickens, Harris was embarking on rotational grazing, a historic practice, lost after industrialization, that uses each species on a farm to augment or remedy the effect of whichever animal came through the fields before. He also suddenly had many more animals: not only the hundreds of calves he formerly would have sent to feedlots but thousands of chickens as well.

On a day when he was loading some of the calves into a semi-trailer to send off for slaughter, he noticed, as if for the first time, that the ones on the lower level would have urine and dung cascading down on them throughout the ride. That did not accord with his emerging sense of animal welfare. To fix it, he spent millions, taking the extraordinary step of building his own USDA-inspected abattoirs in the center of the property, one for the cattle and a second one next to it for the birds. To make sure the slaughterhouses were humane, he hired animal welfare expert Temple Grandin to consult on their design. The abattoirs guaranteed that his animals would live their entire lives on the farm and would spend all of them on grass, except for their last few moments.

There are 10 species raised at White Oak now—five with four feet, five with two—and each earns its keep not just as a product but as a contributor to the farm’s economic cycle. The goats might be the only animal that can eat faster than kudzu can grow; Harris uses them to clear overgrown fields and orchards before he moves the pigs in. The pigs in turn root up crusted-over fields so they can be replanted in the mix of grass species that replaced the Bermuda grass. Bones are dried in the fields and ground for fertilizer. Cow hides are tanned for rugs and made into purses; fat becomes soap and candles; tracheas, chicken feet, and other gristly bits are dehydrated to sell as pet chews. The rinse water from the abattoirs is sprayed on the fields; viscera are dumped into tubs to make breeding grounds for high-protein fly larvae that are fed to the birds.

The chickens play an essential role. White Oak raises 260,000 broilers in a year and keeps a flock of 12,000 layer hens. They and the other birds—ducks, geese, turkeys, and guinea fowl, Harris’s favorite—arrive as day-old chicks, spend three to four weeks in a brooder barn behind the main offices, and then live in the fields. Each new batch of broilers is deposited in a cluster of coops, far enough from the other clusters that the birds will not wander and mix. They are locked in for one night, and then left free to roam, though they naturally return each night to their housing for safety. Ranch hands bring them water and supplemental feed, and every two weeks, the coops are dragged 40 feet by a tractor so the birds will refresh a different piece of land.

While the birds benefit the farm, they themselves benefit from Harris’s idea of better welfare. The slow-growth hybrids seem to have stronger immune systems; once out of the brooder, they do not randomly collapse and die as conventional birds do. And because they grow more slowly, they do not develop leg problems, and their hearts and circulation are not overstressed. Their main cause of death, before slaughter, is predation. Guardian dogs, Great Pyrenees and Akbash and Anatolian shepherds, protect the birds from coyotes and foxes—though in each flock, some are lost to owls and to bald eagles that roost in the farm’s woods. When the chickens are slaughtered, their rates of foodborne organisms come in below federal standards—and with no antibiotics used on the farm, there is no antibiotic resistance.

There is only one challenge remaining: how to make them profitable.

Big Chicken
Antibiotics don’t just fight infections; they also fatten chickens.

Photograph by Graeme Montgomery/Trunk Archive

White Oak slaughters 5,000 birds weekly. Once each week, a USDA inspector assigned to the plant reaches into the bins of water and ice where the just-killed birds are cooling, pulls one out at random, drops it into a plastic bag filled with a liquid that is optimal for growing bacteria, massages the bird through the bag, drains off the growth medium, and sends it to a lab to be cultured. A White Oak worker does the same thing at the same time. The tests look for Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli. White Oak is allowed to have up to five positive weeks, out of any 52, in which pathogens are found. In a year, they usually have one.

Brian Sapp, the farm’s tall director of operations—he has a master’s degree in meat science and grew up on a flower bulb farm in Florida—suggested it might be because they keep the birds moving during the day as they roam and month to month as they transfer pastures. “We can’t control the environment the way you can in a closed house—the bedding, the air flow, and temperature control,” he said. “But in a closed house, those birds are sitting on their excrement and on dead chickens, whereas if there are any pathogens our [animals] build up, in three weeks we’ve moved them off.”

As in the Label Rouge program, fewer organisms come into the slaughterhouse with the chickens. But also, once in the White Oak processing plant, conditions make it less likely that bacteria will spread between birds. The number that White Oak kills and guts in a week, individually and by hand, equals what an industrial plant might handle in an hour, almost entirely by automation.

“We’re looking at every bird, handling every bird two or three times,” Sapp told me. “If there’s something contaminated, we can immediately stop what we’re doing, clean up, and start over. If you’ve got an evisceration line in a large plant, by the time somebody walks by and sees that a machine’s not working right, you may have 300 birds that have been contaminated, and you don’t know where that 300 starts and when it stops.”

The downside of all that handling is that labor is expensive. Harris estimates that White Oak’s labor costs per bird are three times as high as conventional birds, which passes through to the retail price. “My grass-fed beef costs 30 percent more than the grain-fed beef at Whole Foods, but my chicken is 300 percent more—and the reason is, chicken lent itself to industrialization so much more,” he said. “When we industrialized, we were able to take out labor costs, feed costs, land costs. When we put chicken back on pasture, we accept those costs back as well.”

Whole Foods on the Atlantic coast is one of Harris’s main retail channels, along with middlemen distributors, restaurants, and Internet sales. But Whole Foods shoppers are not what economists call “price sensitive”; they buy for ideology or identity or flavor as much as for cost. And White Oak’s chickens are delicious, with lean meat and deep flavor similar to Label Rouge birds. But like those birds, they can be challenging to cook and to eat. An early collaboration with a chef who wanted to shape a fast-casual chain around them broke down when customers complained the flesh was chewy and fretted that the interior of the legs remained pink. (The color indicated the chicken got plenty of blood-pumping exercise when it was alive, but eaters worried it was raw.)

Working with chefs is a crucial part of the chicken project—not just for the birds they buy, but for the awareness they spread to their customers as well. Their needs are something that White Oak has had to learn. “We try to find chefs who are willing to celebrate inconsistency, because with pastured poultry, that is unavoidable,” Harris’s daughter Jenni told me. She is the middle child of his three daughters and the farm’s director of marketing; everyone accepts that she will run the farm after him. “But I get it. They order a case of chicken from us, 12 birds, and in that box there are birds that are 3.1 pounds and 3.9 pounds. An industrial producer could control that better. Our birds are out burning calories, escaping from predators, hiding from the sun, taking dust baths, eating bugs and grubs of different types in different portions—which from an animal welfare perspective is excellent but from a perspective of predictability is hard.”

The result is that, after seven years, White Oak’s chickens are still not paying for themselves. Harris says it is hard to know how much money the birds are losing him because he does not break out his balance sheets by species. But he suspects that the farm’s grass-fed beef, its signature product, pays for all the rest. He is okay with that. “I bet you we got two-point-something million dollars, maybe three million, invested in being in the chicken business, and I don’t regret it,” he said. “I believe the time will come that it will be profitable.”

See McKenna at the Decatur Book Festival, where she’ll speak at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 2. She’ll also attend the Georgia launch party for the book at Manuel’s Tavern at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 18. For more of her local appearances, go to

Excerpted from Big Chicken, published by National Geographic Partners, LLC, September 12, 2017. Copyright © 2017 by Maryn McKenna

This article originally appeared in our September 2017 issue.