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Wendy Gordon

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Hospitals to Serve "Antibiotic-Free" Chicken, Cargill Recalls More Ground Turkey

Posted: 09/13/11 02:27 PM ET

Does it matter if the chicken you buy for your family is from a farm that uses low doses of antibiotics in the feed? Consider this: Premier Healthcare Alliance recently contracted with Murray's Chicken of South Fallsburg, New York, to provide affordably priced Certified Humane Raised and Handled chicken to member hospitals and healthcare sites. And that means no low-dose antibiotics in the chickens' feed.

If it matters to Premier Healthcare Alliance (which serves more than 2,500 U.S. hospitals and 76,000-plus other healthcare sites), it should matter to you and me.

Health care providers are on the front lines of the growing crisis of bacterial resistance. And they've been among those calling most loudly for a ban on the sub-therapeutic feeding of antibiotics to healthy livestock. They are seeing an increasing number of infections that are more and more difficult to treat and require longer and more expensive hospital stays due to bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics. The results can be fatal.

Recall the outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella found in ground turkey made by Cargill, Inc. that as of August 11, 2011 had killed one and infected 107 people in 31 states. The company, having recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey earlier that month, just announced it is recalling another 185,000 pounds of product that may be contaminated with the identical strain of Salmonella.

With three times more antibiotics going to healthy farm animals than to sick people--approximately 25 million pounds to animals versus 7 million pounds to humans--and the annual U.S. costs associated with drug-resistant infections estimated to be at $26 billion and climbing, the health community understands it doesn't make sense to squander critically important human medicines on healthy animals.

Many hospitals have wanted to buy products from farms that weren't routinely feeding low doses of antibiotics to their livestock, explained Marie Kulick, sustainable procurement advisor for Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition of hospitals and healthcare providers, "but the increased cost and lack of availability through their mainline distributors have been significant barriers."

This is why the contract with Murray's Chicken that Premier Healthcare Alliance negotiated on behalf of all its members is so important: As Kulick told PR Newswire, it means this healthier option is more readily available and at a better price.

Steve Gold, vice president of marketing and sales for Murray's Chicken says, "we gave them our normal pricing, which we think is pretty fair." It costs more to raise chickens that meet the Certified Humane Raised & Handled standards, and all of Murray Chicken is. "There are a lot of different variables why ABF (antibiotic-free) chickens cost more than commodity chickens," Mr. Gold explains. "We're antibiotic-free. There is much less density in the coops. Our chickens take two weeks longer to grow. The way our chickens are handled on the farm, it's a slower process. It's a slower process at the plant level."

"This is a product that Premier's base has been asking for. They listen to the customers," Gold added. Other large food purveyors are doing the same. Just last week Culver's announced it is adding a line of premium chicken sandwiches featuring antibiotic-free poultry raised on a vegetarian diet from Springer Mountain Farms, a subsidiary brand of Fieldale Farms. They follow Chipotle, the national restaurant chain, which began serving "naturally raised" meat more than 10 years ago because of "a belief that conditions necessitating copious use of antibiotics contribute to the problem of antimicrobial resistance."

Murray's Chicken is also available in supermarkets along with Applegate Farms' organic and antibiotic-free meat products.

The contract with Premier, according to Mr. Gold, "made a statement that sustainable food is becoming more mainstream." Since the announcement, Murray's has "received many many phone calls from people interested in sourcing our product," Gold says, adding, "The end user wants healthier products."

Let your school, workplace, senior center, or grocery store know what you want. If they wonder why it matters or if they'll be able to find antibiotic-free poultry and meat, share this story with them.