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

September 2017

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

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…

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