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A journalist chronicles the coevolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the modern chicken

Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats

Maryn McKenna
National Geographic
2017
400 pp.
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What does the invention of the chicken nugget in 1963 have to do with a 1999 outbreak of urinary tract infections in Berkeley undergraduates? More than you might realize, writes journalist Maryn McKenna: Both, she argues, are ultimately due to the industrialization of chicken farming during the 20th century. In Big Chicken, she skillfully weaves together the interrelated threads of agricultural industrialization, antibiotic misuse, and food safety issues in a highly readable and engaging narrative.

McKenna explored the rise of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in her first and second books (1, 2). In Big Chicken, no single bacterium takes center stage. Instead, she shows the reader how industrial chicken farms have misused antibiotics for decades, breeding generations of resistant bacteria alongside their poultry.

Big Chicken explains how industrialized chicken farms served as a model for the industrialization of other agricultural products, such as pigs and cattle. The book describes the discovery of growth-promoting antibiotics in the late 1940s, details the ways antibiotics were marketed to farmers and other consumers throughout the middle of the century as “wonder drugs” seemingly without risk, and explores how antibiotic use set the stage for larger and more specialized farms that ultimately led to modifications to the chickens themselves. McKenna draws logical links between farm-centric topics and critical human health issues, including life-threatening food poisoning and devastating cases of sepsis. But, more importantly, she elucidates a path away from antibiotic use in animal husbandry, complete with the challenges that will be faced by producers large and small.

McKenna introduces the reader to Label Rouge, a program sponsored by the French government that raises slow-growing chickens with minimal antibiotics. She explores low-tech interventions, including increased hygiene in barns, changes to the animals’ diets, and the use of vaccines to prevent, rather than treat, disease.

JOHN THYS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Eggs are packaged at a poultry farm in the Hesbaye region of Belgium.

Big Chicken should have broad appeal. Scientists will likely enjoy the book’s exploration of the history of antibiotic use in agriculture and the rise of the specialization of food science. Foodies will be well served by stories of how modern chicken came to be and how some producers are returning to the ways and breeds of the past. Policy wonks should take note of the differences in legislation in the United States and Europe, where antibiotics have long been banned as growth promoters in many countries.

Big Chicken couldn’t be more timely. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that we may be approaching a “post-antibiotic era,” and in 2016, the United Nations General Assembly held an “unprecedented” meeting on the topic of antibiotic resistance. In February of this year, the World Health Organization published a list of “priority pathogens” for research and drug discovery.

The book’s one limitation is that it lacks an extensive discussion of the fact that reducing antibiotic use in agriculture may not be enough to diminish antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, particularly in the short term. Resistance genes can linger in the environment and can be maintained by bacteria even in the absence of antibiotics. And although the chicken industry is rapidly moving toward antibiotic reduction, the beef and pork industries are lagging.

But consumers are paying attention. McKenna describes how the Perdue chicken company changed its practices largely because it was “getting more and more questions about antibiotics.” In 2007, it began a decade-long process to move toward a “no antibiotics ever” model. A number of fast-food restaurants have pledged to move toward chickens raised without antibiotics, and McDonald’s recently expanded that promise to include other meat products as well. As companies and individual farmers nationwide grapple with these changes, McKenna’s words ring true: “… to feed the world with cheap protein at the risk of sickening the world with resistant bacteria—was a false choice.”

References

  1. M. McKenna, Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (Free Press, New York, 2004)

  2. M. McKenna, Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA (Free Press, New York, 2011)

About the author

The reviewer is at the College of Public Health, Kent State University, Kent, OH 44242, USA.