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Chicken feed contains surprises that could harm your health

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Johns Hopkins researchers find banned antibiotic in chicken feather feed.

Johns Hopkins researchers were surprised to find banned antibiotics in chicken meal that can have a negative impact on human health from antibiotic resistance. The drug class that has been banned, but discovered in 8 out of 12 samplings, was fluoroquinolones used to treat the worst type of infections in humans that fail to respond to older antibiotics.


The finding was such a surprise because fluoroquinolone use in U.S. poultry production was banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2005. The researchers also found some other surprises including personal care products and arsenic, which might mean humans who eat chickens are exposed to the same substances.

Four antibiotic drugs were discovered in samplings of feather meal that is a by-product of poultry meat made from chicken feathers, including the banned antimicrobial.

Researchers from the Bloomberg School’s Center for a Livable Future and Arizona State’s Biodesign Institute also looked for other drugs in poultry, fish feed, swine and cattle. They also find inorganic arsenic in fertilizer that is made from chicken feathers and then sold as ‘organic fertilizer’. Poultry feathers are often added as a supplement to poultry, pig, ruminant, and fish feeds.

David Love, PhD, lead author of the report said in a news release, “The public health community has long been frustrated with the unwillingness of FDA to effectively address what antibiotics are fed to food animals.” Because fluoroquinolones were found in the chicken feathers, Love believes it’s a strong indication that the industry is still using the antibiotics despite the FDA ruling.

Other drugs found in chicken meal

One of the biggest reasons the antibiotics newly discovered in chicken meal was banned by the FDA is because of antibiotic resistance to Campylobacter bacteria, which is the second most reported cause of food-borne illness affecting humans. Infection can cause diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

Campylobacter bacteria are normally found in the guts of swine, chickens and other farm animals and also in pets. Infections can cause no symptoms and some people are carriers of the bacteria. Complications have been reported, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which include pancreatitis, infection in the bloodstream, hepatitis, reactive arthritis that last for months and paralysis.

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Study co-author Keeve Nachman, PhD, Farming for the Future Program Director at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “With such a ban, you would expect a decline in resistance to these drugs. The continued use of fluoroquinolones and unintended antibiotic contamination of poultry feed may help explain why high rates of fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter continue to be found on commercial poultry meat products over half a decade after the ban.” Antibiotics used to raise chickens are to make them grow faster rather than to treat infection. What that means is low level antibiotics are used which is really bad for creating antibiotic resistance. When drugs don't destroy bacteria, it makes them stronger and more resistant.

So even though humans don’t eat chicken meal, if you or a loved one develops a food-borne infection from Campylobacter – which can happen from undercooking and improper food handling – your treatment options might be limited because the bacteria can no longer be destroyed with fluoroquinolones

The researchers analyzed chicken father meal from six U.S. states and China for 59 pharmaceuticals and personal care products. All of 12 samples tested had between 1 and 10 antibiotic traces. They also found the pain reliever acetaminophen, the antihistamine diphenhydramine, and the antidepressant fluoxetine. They even found caffeine in chicken feathers, meaning humans are exposed to a wide variety of prescription and over-the-counter drugs that is unintentional.

The researchers said in a news release, “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.”

The authors say they strongly urge the FDA to take better control of monitoring what drugs go into animal feed that ultimately exposes humans to a variety of substances. The presence of antimicrobials, over the counter drugs and arsenic found in chicken feed and fertilizer is surprising. The presence of the banned antibiotic suggests farmers are still using it, despite the FDA ban in 2005. The researchers recommend more investigation into what types of residues are left in chicken meat that humans consume. They have not identified any immediate danger to consumers.

Source: CLF Researchers Find Evidence of Banned Antibiotics in Poultry Products" Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
April, 2012

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

Updated 6/7/2014