Foster Farms on Monday launched its first lines of organic and antibiotic-free chicken, and turkey could follow by October.
The company is now the West’s largest producer of organic chicken, made without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on feed, and the antibiotic-free version, which avoids the routine use of drugs that might allow for the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that affect humans.
The moves, which involve raw whole chickens and parts, are a major milestone for Foster Farms, founded near Waterford in 1939 and now based in Livingston. It employs about 13,000 people and already was the top-selling brand of conventional poultry in the West.
“Our company is committed to responsible growing practices that help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for human health and medicine,” said Ron Foster, chief executive officer and president, in a news release.
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The announcement drew mostly praise from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has raised concerns that antibiotics routinely fed to healthy chickens could allow drug-resistant pathogens to thrive. What’s still lacking is a clear timeline for eliminating all antibiotics that are “medically important” to humans, said Jonathan Kaplan, the group’s food and agriculture director, in a blog post.
“But for now, good job Foster Farms!” he wrote. “The company reports it has made real progress and seems committed to further improvement.”
Foster Farms joins other major chicken producers, such as Tyson and Perdue, in the effort to reduce antibiotics that could threaten human health.
Major retailers carry the new products, sold under the Foster Farms Certified Organic and Foster Farms Simply Raised antibiotic-free chicken labels.
The antibiotic-free line includes whole birds and packages with just breasts, drumsticks, thighs or wings. The organic products include all of these, plus a package of mixed parts. The lines do not include Foster Farms’ further-processed items, such as marinated raw chicken or breaded and frozen products.
Consumers will pay a premium, as is typical with these types of products. Foster Farms organic thighs sold for $3.49 a pound at Food Maxx in Modesto on Monday, compared with $1.89 for conventional thighs. The antibiotic-free version was $2.49. These were bone-in, skin-on products. Boneless and skinless chicken costs more.
Foster Farms plans to add organic turkey in September or October, spokeswoman Amy Scarlett said. The organic label will go on fresh whole birds. The antibiotic-free line will include frozen whole turkeys and ground meat.
Organic and antibiotic-free products will appeal to people who can afford them, said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis. But buyers should be aware, she said, that conventional chicken is just as nutritious and safe.
Bruhn also said organic products are not allowed to have genetically modified ingredients – including the corn and soybeans that the chickens eat – but she said these crops have actually helped the environment by reducing pesticide use.
“They are indeed responding to a growing interest in organic, but let’s be clear,” Bruhn said. “This is marketing. It’s not nutrition. It’s not safety. It’s not sustainability.”
The two new lines joined conventional Foster Farms chicken being marketed under the Fresh & Natural label. It includes raw products that have long been advertised as containing no salt water or other additives.
Foster Farms said it is raising organic chickens at a Merced County ranch, but locations for other farming and processing were not available Monday. The company has chicken plants in Livingston, Fresno and other sites in five western and southern states. It processes turkey in Turlock.
The organic feed comes mostly from the Midwest, as it does for conventional poultry.
The announcement comes as Foster Farms continues to deal with scrutiny of a 2013 salmonella outbreak, tied to raw chicken from Livingston and Fresno, that sickened more than 600 people, according to federal authorities. This included a PBS documentary last month that the company said failed to mention the substantial reduction in salmonella detections over the past year.
The NRDC needled Foster Farms about antibiotics with a billboard near the Livingston headquarters last year. In his blog post Monday, Kaplan said the company “is getting serious about reducing antibiotics.”
Foster Farms said it no longer treats any chickens with antibiotics that are “critical to human medicine” and is working toward eliminating all that are used on people, except where the health of an entire flock is at risk.
“We take a holistic approach to antibiotic stewardship,” Ron Foster said. “Our goal has been threefold: reduce the need for medical treatment by advancing bird health; choose animal-only antibiotics when needed for conventional flocks; and increase antibiotic-free production.”
John Holland: (209) 578-2385
NEW FOSTER FARMS ITEMS
Organic: Whole raw chickens; raw breasts, wings, drumsticks or thighs; mixed raw parts.
Antibiotic-free: Whole raw chickens; raw breasts, wings, drumsticks or thighs