A public display scrutinizing the use of antibiotics in Foster Farms chickens greeted hundreds of residents Friday, sending a powerful message about what advocates say is continued misuse of the drug by the giant poultry producer.
The billboard, paid for by the Natural Resources Defense Council, displayed the words, “Foster Farms, is your antibiotic use safe for your littlest customers?” next to a picture of a young child.
NRDC officials told the Merced Sun-Star the sign was an effort to get the company’s attention and educate the public on the issue.
Foster Farms’ Director of Communications Ira Brill said the company uses antibiotics according to regulations set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal Food and Drug Administration.
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But Jonathan Kaplan, director of NRDC’s food and agriculture program, said the routine overuse of antibiotics in chicken leads to the formation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That bacteria multiplies and spreads, leading to illnesses and potentially sickening hundreds of chicken consumers.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria was tied to a salmonella outbreak involving Foster Farms chicken that sickened 634 people last year and earlier this year, Kaplan said. More than half those salmonella strains showed resistance to one or more antibiotics, he added.
“We’re very concerned that companies like Foster Farms are using antibiotics routinely to raise their animals – either to make them grow faster or to help them survive confinement in crowded, stressful, unsanitary living conditions for animals,” Kaplan said.
Though Foster Farms has said antibiotics are not used to fatten chickens, Kaplan said the company has been tight-lipped about its use of antibiotics – what kind, how much and how often. Other poultry producers, such as Perdue Farms, have made a commitment to use antibiotics only to treat sick animals, Kaplan added.
However, Brill said Foster Farms uses antibiotics only to prevent disease, not to promote growth in the chickens. He said Foster Farms plans to launch organic and antibiotic-free product lines in April 2015 for people who prefer them to conventional chicken.
“We will be the largest producer of antibiotic-free products on the West Coast,” he said, “and we believe any guidance (for consumers) should be from the USDA and FDA.”
California Poultry Federation president Bill Mattos, who’s worked with Foster Farms about 25 years, denounced the billboard Friday and called it “misleading.”
“It’s a very outrageous billboard and makes no sense to call out one company like that,” Mattos said. “Foster Farms is a leader in the industry in most ways, and the antibiotic use is for animal welfare and to keep the chickens healthy.”
Mattos was not alone in his staunch support of Foster Farms. Livingston Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra also rushed to defend the company that was recently given a key to the city. Samra called the billboard a scare tactic.
“Did they ask the same question of Tyson foods and other groups?” Samra asked. “People who see this billboard need to know Foster Farms chicken is safe. I’ve had many tours over the years and know how they work on the inside.”
Foster Farms is the largest private employer in Merced County, employing about 3,500 people in the area.
“The company and its employees contribute significantly to our local economy, for which we are greatly appreciative,” said Mark Hendrickson, county director of community and economic development. “While attacks like these are unfortunate, they nonetheless occur and typically fail to capture the good being done by companies like Foster Farms to ensure that families have food on the table.”
NRDC officials said they’ve sent letters to Foster Farms about the issue, but received no response.
“I think Foster Farms would like to ignore us and hope this issue goes away,” Kaplan said. “By putting a billboard up, we want them to know we are here to stay, and we’re serious about the issue.”
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.