FAYETTEVILLE -- As consumers and major buyers such as McDonald's put pressure on the poultry industry to limit antibiotic use, researchers are working to find alternatives.
Pacific Vet Group, a Fayetteville company with ties to the University of Arkansas, is developing probiotics -- which are helpful bacteria -- that can take on some of the roles that antibiotics traditionally have played.
"There's a reason that antibiotics are used," said Ross Wolfenden, vice president of research and development for Pacific Vet Group. "So as antibiotics are taken out, there are opportunities for us in those categories."
Antibiotics traditionally have been used for growth efficiency -- getting the biggest animal possible from a given amount of food -- and disease prevention and treatment.
Chris Pixley, chief operating officer, said consumers generally accept that sick animals need medicine, but there's a growing backlash against using antibiotics as growth promoters.
"No one is out there questioning the benefits of antibiotics, but now people are starting to question whether we should be using these all the time," he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the majority of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are found in hospitals, but the widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture increases the risk that antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be bred and transferred to humans.
The CDC estimates that annually at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths are caused by such bacteria. About 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are used on livestock -- though that number includes anti-microbials such as ionophores, which are not used in human medicine.
And in December 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidance on how pharmaceutical companies can work with the agency to voluntarily remove growth enhancement and feed efficiency from the approved uses of drug products and require veterinarian oversight. In a report released last month, the FDA said drug companies were complying with the request.
Wolfenden said recent actions by the government, but mostly consumer demand, have led to increased interest in his product.
"It's been a long time coming to be honest with you," he said. "Over the last decade for sure, there really has been few mandates to really limit antibiotic use, but what's been growing faster is the consumer push."
McDonald's said earlier this month that it would stop buying chicken raised with medically important antibiotics within two years. Its move follows commitments by other major restaurant chains, like Chipotle, Panera Bread and Chick-Fil-A, to reduce or end antibiotic use.
Commitments from restaurants and changing consumer attitudes have allowed more research into antibiotic alternatives, Pixley said.
"Research has been active in this area for about 30 or 40 years, but it's been limited because of the success of antibiotics," he said. "Historically, the probiotic industry has been considered snake oil, a smoke and mirrors type product, but in the last 15 years, in our case, or 5 or 6 years, from the industry standpoint, you've seen people start to embrace the science behind the probiotics."
Wolfenden said research started with a simple idea. Backyard chicks, when around their mom, naturally integrate bacteria from the hen and the surrounding environment. This bacteria makes them healthier and more resistant to disease.
To improve efficiency, the poultry industry takes the eggs from the hens, where they hatch in a controlled environment. However, these chicks are more susceptible to disease.
Companies wanted to reduce the mortality rate, so they gave the chicks antibiotics. Some also introduced fermented gut content from hens into the chicks' environment, so they would integrate some of the bacteria naturally.
Wolfenden said this first generation probiotic was used from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. The FDA eventually banned the practice because it wasn't possible to know what bacteria was in each chicken gut and whether it was safe.
Researchers at the University of Arkansas refined the technique while Wolfenden was a graduate student. Now, Pacific Vet Group produces specific strains of beneficial bacteria that can be fed to birds to help them grow bigger and stay healthier.
"Probiotics and direct-fed microbial are a great way to improve, maybe not all the things antibiotics combat, but many of the things that antibiotic growth promoters have done," Pixley said.
Pixley says about a third of producers are using probiotics, and one application for Pacific Vet Group's technology is in the hatchery -- an area that's being targeted for antibiotic elimination.
Tyson Foods and Purdue Foods stopped using all antibiotics -- whether used in human medicine or not -- in their hatcheries last year.
Wolfenden cautioned that probiotics aren't direct replacements for antibiotics. Producers have to adopt even more stringent biosecurity rules so diseases stay out of the poultry houses in the first place.
"If you've got a true respiratory infection, there's honestly not much you can do besides improve biosecurity to stop infections from getting onto the premises in the first place," he said.
Though probiotics help digestive health and growth, they don't have a large effect on throat health, and more research is needed to develop probiotics that can be used to treat specific ailments.
Nevertheless, Pixley said probiotics have a place in animal production techniques that limit antibiotic use.
"It seems simple. Animal agriculture in general is you get a small animal, you give it a bunch of food and you wind up with a big animal. But it's very complex. You've got diseases, just all kinds of things you have to deal with to keep an animal healthy and happy and operating efficiently," Pixley said.
"Anytime you change anything in a system, everything else has to come to a balance."
SundayMonday Business on 03/22/2015