New research raises questions about whether poultry producers might still be using an antibiotic that was banned in 2005 after being linked to increasing antibiotic resistance.

poultryproduction_iphone.jpgResearchers at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) and Arizona State University tested feather meal — a byproduct made of ground-up poultry feathers commonly added to chicken, swine, cattle and fish feed — and found a surprising variety of drug residues, including fluoroquinolones, a class of antibiotics critical for fighting infections in humans.

The findings surprised scientists because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the class of drugs, which includes cipro, in poultry production in 2005 in response to rising fluoroquinolone resistance among Campylobacter bacteria, a leading cause of foodborne illness.

“The discovery of certain antibiotics in feather meal strongly suggests the continued use of these drugs, despite the ban put in place in 2005 by the FDA,” said David Love, PhD, project director at CLF and lead author of the report, which was published in Environmental Science & Technology. “The public health community has long been frustrated with the unwillingness of FDA to effectively address what antibiotics are fed to food animals.”

Nick Kristof broke the story in his column “Arsenic in Our Chicken?,” which was the most emailed story on on Thursday.

“These studies don’t mean that you should dump the contents of your refrigerator, but they do raise serious questions about the food we eat and how we should shop,” wrote Kristof, reiterating that the research does not suggest a health risk to poultry consumers.

Keeve Nachman, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and co-author of the study, said the research team was shocked at the variety of pharmaceuticals they were able to detect.

In 12 feather meal samples, which were collected from six states and China, they found 59 pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Each sample was found to contain antibiotic residues (testing positive for between 2 and 10 different drugs).

As part of the study, researchers exposed strains of E. coli bacteria to the concentrations of antibiotics detected in the feather meal and found that the residues were strong enough to select for resistant bacteria.

Drugs not typically associated with poultry production were also detected, including the antihistamine diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl) and the antidepressant fluoxetine (the active ingredient in Prozac). Researchers detected caffeine and acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) in 10 of the 12 samples.

“We were kind of floored,” Nachman told the Times. “It’s unbelievable what we found.”

The National Chicken Council responded by reminding consumers that the study looked at feathers, not meat and reiterated that there is no immediate health concern.  

“Today’s chicken industry produces birds that benefit from modern technology, advances in nutrition, carefully formulated feed, biosecurity measures, access to a plentiful supply of clean water, adequate room to grow cage-free and professional veterinary attention,” said NCC in a statement.

“Consumers should know that chicken is safe, wholesome and that all chicken produced in the United States is inspected by the USDA,” added the council. “Inspectors test meat samples for chemical and antimicrobial residues; and all poultry must be in compliance with USDA standards before entering the marketplace.  When antibiotics are used in chicken production, strict withdrawal periods must be followed before the birds are processed for food.  Chicken consistently has the best record of any meat product tested for residues by USDA.”

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) — a microbiologist who has for years been pushing for stronger controls on antibiotics used in animal agriculture — responded angrily to the study in a letter to FDA.

“I’m outraged by this,” said Slaughter. “If the results of this study are accurate, then those culpable for endangering public health must be held fully accountable. This is really just a symptom of the bigger problem, which is that the FDA has continued to drag its feet in addressing this looming public health crisis.”

Slaughter asked the FDA to respond within 30 days with how the agency plans to investigate the issue and requested specifics on the oversight currently in place, including how many personnel are involved to “ensure proper oversight of antibiotics used to feed healthy animals.”

  • Steve

    LET’S SEE… here’s some other aspects of the Report:
    — “The findings were a surprise to scientists because fluoroquinolone use in U.S. poultry production was banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2005.”
    “…The discovery of certain antibiotics in feather meal strongly suggests the continued use of these drugs, despite the ban put in place in 2005 by the FDA,” said David Love, PhD, lead author of the report. “The public health community has long been frustrated with the unwillingness of FDA to effectively address what antibiotics are fed to food animals.”
    But there’s also plenty of other classes of antibiotics that are STILL allowed that are used on a daily basis in poultry production also found in the analysis:
    — “In the U.S., antibiotics are introduced into the feed and water of industrially raised poultry, primarily to make them grow faster, rather than to treat disease. An estimated 13.2 million kg of antibiotics were sold in 2009 to the U.S. poultry and livestock industries, which represented nearly 80 percent of all antibiotic sales for use in humans and animals in the U.S. that year.”
    And the researchers found LOT’s of other drug residues, as well:
    — “All 12 samples tested had between 2 and 10 antibiotic residues. In addition to antimicrobials, 7 other personal care products, including the pain reliever acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol), the antihistamine diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl) and the antidepressant fluoxetine (the active ingredient in Prozac), were detected.
    Researchers also found caffeine in 10 of 12 feather meal samples. “This study reveals yet another pathway of unwanted human exposure to a surprisingly broad spectrum of prescription and over the-counter drugs,” noted study co-author Rolf Halden, PhD, PE, Co-Director of the Center for Health Information & Research, and Associate Director of the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology at Arizona State University.”
    U.S.consumers eat a lot of poultry:
    — The annual per capita human consumption of poultry products is approximately 100 lbs, greater than that of any other animal- or vegetable-derived protein source in the U.S. To satisfy this demand, each year, the U.S. poultry industry raises nearly 9 billion broiler chickens and 80 million turkeys, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A large percentage of the fresh weight of these animals is inedible — an estimated 33 percent for chickens, for example — and is recycled for other uses, including feather meal.
    — And feather meal itself is “a common additive to chicken, swine, cattle and fish feed” — so these drugs enter other sectors of the meat supply as well……
    Researcher’s Bottom Line: Industry self-regulation isn’t working:
    –“We strongly believe that the FDA should monitor what drugs are going into animal feed,” urged Nachman. “Based on what we’ve learned, I’m concerned that the new FDA guidance documents, which call for voluntary action from industry, will be ineffectual. By looking into feather meal, and uncovering a drug banned nearly 6 years ago, we have very little confidence that the food animal production industry can be left to regulate it-self.”

  • Elizabeth Krushinskie

    The interpretation of the results of this supposedly peer-reviewed journal article is an astounding leap of conjecture that have absolutely no basis in fact. The U.S. commercial poultry industry does not use fluoroquinolone antibiotics, caffeine, acetominophen, diphenhydramine, fluoxetine or arsenic in any way, shape, or form and that is a FACT, something sadly missing from the analysis of these results and the subsequent media and uninformed opinion frenzy.
    These researchers and the self-appointed media mouthpieces that continue to fabricate and spread these totally false and slanderous accusations need to be taken to roundly condemned for being the fear mongers they are. Shame on all of you.

  • Cyndy

    I do know for a fact that the poultry industry DOES use antibiotics AND arsenic derivatives in the feed! This came from someone who runs a factory farm. They don’t care as long as they get their $$$$$$! They use these to (1) keep the birds, which are crammed shoulder to shoulder, from getting sick, and (2) arsenic derivatives are used to have the chickens drink more so they lay more eggs! These factory farms have got to be stopped! The ONLY farm animal products I would ever eat HAS to be from Animal Welfare Approved farms. They have the highest standards and don’t allow their certified farmers to use any feather meal, antiobiotics, etc. in their chickens feeds and the birds have to be raised on pasture.

  • Verifier

    Elizabeth — before you push the shame button PLEASE post some back-up research that supports your assertions…

  • Kyle

    Elizabeth’s assertions:
    … this supposedly peer-reviewed journal article…
    No, not supposedly peer-reviewed. Peer-reviewed. Period. You should think twice about libeling leading researchers publishing work in a respected journal, especially when you are recklessly throwing words like “slanderous” around yourself.
    .. the (media) interpretation of the results … is an astounding leap of conjecture that have (sic) absolutely no basis in fact …
    The study co-author’s own interpretation of the study: “We were kind of floored. It’s unbelievable what we found .. it makes me question how comfortable we are feeding a number of these things to animals that we’re eating. It bewilders me.” (Keeve E. Nachman)
    … The U.S. commercial poultry industry does not use fluoroquinolone antibiotics, caffeine, acetominophen, diphenhydramine, fluoxetine or arsenic in any way, shape, or form …
    Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? The industry isn’t supposed to be using these things and yet they are showing up in the feather meal. How do you explain that, Elizabeth?
    Elizabeth, you have testified before Congress, on behalf of the National Chicken Council, that chicken is the most popular meat in America because of the trust and confidence consumers place in the safety of the chicken industry’s products.
    If you want to maintain that trust, you should consider a study like this a warning sign and take steps to seriously address the misuse of antibiotics in your industry, rather than calling the rest of us liars and fear mongers.
    What we fear is antibiotic resistance and its impact on public health, as was vividly brought home by the recent antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreak that sickened 129 people and killed one who had eaten ground turkey.

  • Eileen, Vermont

    When I looked this up it said most feather meal goes into organic fertilizer. It is mixed with manure on organic farms and brews up with manure bacteria then it is spread on your vegetables. These germs are all over your food. It gets spread around when organic farm workers handle the food and in the farm market. No wonder people get terribly sick. Yuck!

  • VTer

    The research report said feather meal is “a common additive to chicken, swine, cattle and fish feed” — which, along with feeding chicken manure to cattle is definitely NOT allowed in organic production.
    Feather meal is also a fertilizer ingredient — and along with the huge amounts of chicken manure used in the intensive poultry producing areas of Chesapeake watershed, for example — it has become a major source of land and water pollution.
    But the fact is, under USDA Organic Certification regulations — all fertilizer sources have to first be verified as free of contaminants. Feather meal from factory farm CAFOs, such as the ones in the study, is NOT allowed.
    Further — while raw manures and contaminated fertilizers are used without any restraint in conventional production on a daily basis — organic regulations alone DISALLOW applications on food crops and mandate verifiable lengthy composting protocols.

  • Wayne

    Does composting get rid of all the arsenic? Probably doesn’t get rid of any of the medicines either. I see organic farmers hauling in manure from everywhere,especially from chicken farms. Maybe they are breaking some rules but nobody checks up on them so we get a good shot of nasty manure with our organic veggies….laced with feather meal now we know. Silly regulations aren’t worth anything if only friendly faces are watching the cookie jar. This feather meal discovery explains a lot about why organic food can’t be trusted. Why would organic farmers use fertilizer made from feather meal unless they are just greedy? Why don’t they farm safely like they claim when they are advertising their expensive food?

  • Eric ProOrganic

    Eileen reveals a dirty little secret of organic farmers. Consumers should be told this stuff in feather meal has found its way into much of their organic vegetables.
    If it is in the chicken feathers it is in the chicken manure organic farmers purchase to put over their vegetable crops. Chicken manure is a favorite fertilizer of organic farmers because it is allowed to come from any source, it is cheap and it is high in nitrogen (which is chronically deficient in organic crops). Let’s BOYCOTT ORGANIC VEGETABLES until the USDA NOP clearly disallows any fertilizer from conventional sources, whether raw manure or mixed with animal byproduct. As it is, the NOP permits farmers to poison organic consumers with these terrible substances found in chicken feather meal and chicken manure fertilizers.
    Thank you Eileen for uncovering the coverup.

  • Jillian

    The “odd-ball” drugs….Could it be coming from the workers? Or from the processing water? All of these drugs are also found in various amounts in most metropolitan water systems. I know there was a study done on the drinking water in Portland Oregon not to long ago that found some of these same drugs. I have heard of other water systems testing out the same…especially those that have waste treatment plants upstream of where water is piped to reservoirs for human consumption.
    I do know that Antibiotic laded feed, supplements and additives are rampant in commercial livestock use. We personally won’t use it for our stock….but I am amazed at what is available at the local feedstores and mail order catalogs.
    Buy local, eat local…know your source.

  • Michael Bulger

    Jillian raises a good point. I’d be curious to know if the water supply had anything to do with the odd-ball drugs.
    VTer is right. This feather meal would not be allowed on an organic farm. Neither would the manure. The NOP regulation clearly states, “(e) The producer must not use: (1) Any fertilizer or composted plant and animal material that contains a synthetic substance not included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production;”.
    The attempt to spin the implications of this study onto organic agriculture is misguided and sounds like a joke. The NOP strictly regulates raw manure and animal byproducts, whereas conventional farms are not subject to such high standards. Even if these substances are taken up by plants, they are still not allowed on organic farms.
    I wonder if the anti-organic poster is going to swear off conventional chicken with the same level of outrage. One can hardly take their claims seriously.

  • VTer

    Thanks Eric “Pro-Organic”
    Organic Boycott over –Check it out….. because the Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990 and subsequent regulations of USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) — Certified Organic farmers clearly are not allow to use fertilizers from contaminated sources… and the use of raw manure is completely banned…
    Further the NOP requires all fertilizer input sources used in organic production must be documented and traceable and may be tested — and the farms must be inspected annually.
    You might also be interested to know that Organic Certification also requires the testing of water sources — water from contaminated rivers and streams is prohibited.
    You may want to start a Boycott of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) meat and eggs, however. That’s where the banned antibiotics and other “odd ball” drugs were FED to the poultry (becoming part of their meat, eggs and their feathers) to begin with….
    Further — there are NO rules governing the use of contaminated chicken manure and feather meal on conventional farms — both for fertilizer and feed additive for fish and livestock! Raw manure is regularly used on cropland and is a major pollutant of waterways.

  • lin sasman

    From reading the article but not yet the report, I would like to pose questions:
    I HOPE the researchers either note the further testing needed or answer natural questions raised, such as
    1. what relation of amounts of chemicals found in feathers to what may be found in the meat/bones from the same chicken;
    2. are the amounts in the feathers possibly from only extensive water contamination – contaminated from groundwater of livestock producers or human waste treated by waste water treatment plants which allow personal care products and pharmaceuticals excreted or flushed to go through as potable water for humans and farms, or feed;
    3. Before one can conclude who is cheating on antibiotics and livestock raising, research must determine evidence and inspection processes.
    It is a HUGE can of public policy and political worms to open if it turns out, for example,
    (1) that some or most water supplies are so polluted that we are re-consuming in meat and or plants and not just in water what we excrete in antibiotics, OR
    (2) that the scientific method or technology doesn’t exist to tell the difference between contaminated feed, contaminated water or antibiotic deliberately given, or that more years of research are needed to produce proposals for rational policy and procedures to protect us, OR
    (3) that it is already evident that manures, water and meat continue to spread what we don’t have the political will to stop in poor livestock raising practices and profits to drug companies, pesticide manufacturers as well.
    Let’s be sure the science is there to help before we blame or demand regulations/inspections.

  • Abbie

    USDA needs to stop organic farmers from ever using any chicken manure or feathers near our vegetables. Somebody should be out there making sure they are following the rules because some organic fertilizer guys have been charged with fraud before. Some farmers have been caught selling stuff they didn’t grow. We are stupid to trust them to police themselves because they are all pushing the same agenda at any price. And we end up paying the price. Now we get a dose of arsenic and prozac with our organic arugula. What a mess.

  • Arkansas mamma

    If organic farms are testing everything they use where can we see those test results? Organic farmers I know never test anything because they don’t want to risk getting caught. They get manure from the biggest chicken farms in our county to put on vegetables they grow. It is all legal they say. None of this is tested or if it is we would have known about all this toxic contamination a long time ago. It makes me so mad to be cheated by organic farmers like this when they charge so much for food. Then somebody says rules don’t allow it but farmers I know don’t like rules much. They had to know if tests were done from before. Lies.

  • Judy2

    No matter how you try and twist it — organic totally prohibits the use of antibiotics, hormones, and other drugs in livestock feed — while using such medicated feed (including the use of banned antibiotics such as Cipro, it seems) is a regular, everyday practice in conventional factory farming operations.
    Ditto the use of factory farm manure, feather meal and other by-products — which are completely prohibited (and tested for) in organic production BUT are used regularly with no oversight in conventional farming operations as fertilizers — and also added to conventional cattle and fish feed.
    While some posters (or one with many alias) plainly don’t like organic and try and cast dispersions at every turn — it’s clear there is nothing to back up the accusations except their own bile and disinformation along with vitriolic ad hominem attacks.It’s easy to see that Lying Is as Lying Does….

  • Phillip

    No “twist”, none at all. Liars, dirty rotten organic liars:
    “Manure from conventional operations is allowed under NOP rules”
    Sure, fall for the organic lobby’s line of any-means-to-an-end sales talk.
    Look, fair play is fair play. You organic propagandists really shouldn’t lie to good folks. Intelligent consumers will always find you out eventually. Besides, if you had any conscience…

  • Michael Bulger

    “You organic propagandists really shouldn’t lie to good folks.”
    Throwing stones in a glass house? Would you like to settle on a name?

  • NOPe

    From “Philip” –The organic risk management info from the U of WiscURL concentrates on organic inputs — not surprisingly with an eye to risk management. As such, they recommend testing manure sources for nutrient content — and in passing erroneous say some certifiers allow this and some certifiers allow that.
    Not so. Organic certifiers have to be accredited by the National Organic Program (NOP) and can lose their status if they do not comply with organic standards…
    And the Standard is: Certified organic farmers are prohibited from using raw manure for at least 90 days before harvest of crops grown for human consumption. Sewage sludge is also prohibited. Manure also cannot be applied on frozen ground and composting standards are also rigorous.
    But then — there are No Such Standards for conventional farmers. They can and do apply raw manure and sewage sludge at any time — even on snow and frozen ground where it runs off into the nearest stream…

  • ExOrganic Buyer

    And none of those fluffy honor system organic practices: holding raw manure applications on food to 90 days, not applying to frozen ground (where no food would be growing anyway, duh!), none of that clears the arsenic or medicines from the chicken manure organic farmers use on soil where our food is grown. As for testing, it is obvious no tests have ever been done before or we would have known about this contamination long ago. This nasty popular (non)organic fertilizer situation has been covered up by organic growers for a long time. They intended never to tell us they slather conventional manure on our organic foods. They seem to have little hesitation telling us lies to keep it covered up. I’ve fallen for the organic sales pitch before but never again. What else are they hiding from us when they divert our attention with their hateful bashing of conventional farming?

  • Fred

    DUH! — raw manure applied to frozen ground leaches directly into water systems , silly….
    and DUH again — it’s the conventional farming operations that use the contaminated fertilizers, silly…

  • Elaine

    Due to the fact the the USDA has gutted the Organic rules to provide quanity to the big box stores, not quality any longer, today it is better to buy locally, know your producer, and ask questions about your food. I am a small rancher/meat producer who wa just inspected by the Colorado of Ag., no violations just government over reach as usual, given the USDA still allows livestock feed to contain “mammal tissue,, exclusive of hair, hoof and horn, hide trimmings, manure and stomach contents.and feathermeal” I’m suppose to log in families who visit my ranch with their children due to bio terrorism, but consumers are still being fed empty promises and lies. If you are what you eat, you are also what they eat. Stop and think before you buy any food from anyplace. We think we are blessed to have cheap food, but cheap food requires cheap inputs.

  • fifi

    Not sure why anyone is critical of this article. I was happy to read it as I just brought a Tyson chicken and was little disturbed at the size of the bird. The layer of fat was disgusting. I cant eat it. It reminds me of a bloated bruise or festering wound. We have an obese unhealthy society and were feeding them drug filled obese chicken and other products. Seriously people these companies could be feeding you Soylent Green and you wouldn’t even question it because it was cheap and could fill your bellies. Were one step away from the mad cow disease the human version or worse. I’m eating organic from now on.

  • Glenn Riehl

    I’d like to see the actual test results, as what I haven’t heard is exactly how much of these chemicals were found. Was it one part per billion, or more significant levels? Also, it noted that the antidepressants were found in chickens from China, so I guess that means it wasn’t found in the US then? Sure hope not. But I’d like to know what chickens were tested–which companies that is. Odd that it only mentions China. Did they test all countries then?
    The article left out a lot of details I think it should have included, considering how alarming the report is. I think to some degree the fire alarm has been sounded but without someone pointing in the direction of the fire, which is somewhat annoying as one then doesn’t know what to do except worry, or possibly grill one’s chicken manufacturers on their animal feed specs (which I’m already in progress on).
    In any case, I appreciate the posts of those above where they gave facts and specifics. If anyone followed this article up and got answers to any questions I raise here, I’d be all ears.