The Future of Chicken, Without Antibiotics

For decades, farmers have used low doses of human antibiotics to fatten their chickens. In the future, if one company has its way, farmers will use a fungal extract originally found in a Japanese pigsty.

Welcome to poultry farming in 2018. In the past few years, with evidence linking antibiotics on animal farms to drug resistance in humans, poultry producers (Perdue, Tyson, etc.) and restaurant chains (McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, Burger King, etc.) have pledged en masse to limit antibiotics in their chicken. It’s easy to pledge, but harder to do. The shift has farmers scrambling to break their reliance on antibiotics and find new ways to help their birds grow.

Which brings us back to the pigsty fungus. Scientists at the Danish company Novozymes recently found that an enzyme in the fungus helps clear dead cells in chickens’ guts. The enzyme, which the company and its animal-nutrition partner DSM are calling Balancius, allows the birds to absorb more nutrition from food. The result, says the Novozymes vice president Lone Dybdal Nilsson, is less feed, less poop, and more chicken.

Balancius is the latest in a category of products—including probiotics, prebiotics, and essential oils—that have gained popularity with the phaseout of antibiotics. “New products are coming out every day,” says Bruce Stewart-Brown, a veterinarian and senior vice president at Perdue. Perdue began eliminating antibiotics from its chicken operations in 2002. It took the company 12 years to go all the way.

“It is tough,” says Todd Applegate, a poultry-nutrition expert at the University of Georgia. Antibiotics were a wonder supplement for farmers, and the new products just “don’t have the same range of functions that the antibiotics convey.”

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