Scheduled Downtime: Poultry Farmers Pivot To Meet The Expectations Of Millennial Foodies

Vegan protein supplements for chickens fill the void left by reduced use of antibiotics

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Chicken DinnerThe notion that you are what you eat has been around for centuries. The latest wrinkle is, you are what you've eat, but also what you've eaten ate.

Animal feed is going vegan, at least where broiler chickens are concerned. The movement away from antibiotics in general and their role as a growth stimulant in particular is nudging along the change. So, too, the preferences of millennials and fans of vegan diets are playing a role. As a result, vegetable protein supplements are growing in use at poultry feed mills.

It’s been a long time coming for some. One of the earliest providers of plant-based supplements for livestock was Delacon (www.delacon.com), a Steyregg, Austria, firm with a 30-year track record in supplying plant-based, or phytogenic, feed for livestock. The emphasis is on stimulating production of digestive juices so gastrointestinal (GI) enzymes would break down feed faster and improve nutritional health. But when concern over indiscriminate use of antibiotics started gaining traction, “we shifted focus to GI immune response and gut health,” relates Sonny Pusey, a Delacon animal nutrition specialist. “That shift has been going on for four or five years and is really in its infancy.”

Pusey was referring to the science behind phytogenics as a viable substitute for antibiotics. The shift to antibiotic-free chickens is more like an adolescent fast approaching adulthood. Depending on who is making the estimate, 35-45 percent of broiler chickens are sold with some sort of antibiotic-free claim, according to Mike Bynum, director of U.S. poultry sales for H.J. Baker LLC (www.hjbaker.com), a Shelton, Conn., animal nutrition supplier. By year end, he expects "clean" birds to account for half the market.

“We’ve seen a lot of fads come and go,” says Bynum, “but about four years ago, we realized this is not going to pass.”

Perdue Farms staked a leadership position in reduced-antibiotics use in 2002 and recently announced they will only be administered to sick chickens, about 5 percent of the population. Speaking in October at the Wall Street Journal’s Global Food Forum, Chairman Jim Perdue estimated sales of chickens raised without antibiotics are growing at a 15-20 percent clip. By contrast, sales of conventionally raised birds are growing 1-3 percent.

Twenty years ago, veterinary scientists at FDA began lobbying for a ban on fluoroquinolones, antibiotics prescribed for humans, in chicken feed because of concerns that pathogenic bacteria would develop resistance to them and render fluoroquinolones ineffective. Pushback from industry was fierce, given the growth boost realized by dousing flocks with antibiotic sprays. McDonald’s was the first poultry buyer to announce it would stop buying chickens doused with fluoroquinolones. As of February, a ban on spraying entire flocks with antibiotic sprays went into effect.

Feed supplements with animal proteins could promote the kind of gut health in chicks that can ward off illnesses, but that runs afoul of millennial interest in moving toward plant proteins and away from animal proteins. Why people about to tuck into a roasted chicken would agonize over the type of protein fed to their dinner is unclear, but the available research says they do.

Almost half of millennials classify themselves as foodies, Delacon’s research shows, and 60 percent of them would buy poultry raised with phytogenics if given the option. “Feeding a vegan diet to a bird that’s going to be eaten is contradictory, but it’s real,” shrugs Bynum. Close association with organic and natural foods undoubtedly plays a role in phytogenic preference, and organic broiler sales are growing by double digits.

When major customers tell food companies to alter feeding practices, they back it up with serious enforcement. Besides auditing feed formulas to determine if animal protein is included, “some are conducting ingredient tests that go down to the DNA level,” Bynum reports. The sensitivity of DNA testing concerns some companies so much that they’re reluctant to ship vegan-diet birds in trucks previously used to transport chickens fed conventional diets.

The easy way to stake out an all-veggie diet claim is to heavy up on corn and soybean meal, but that won’t deliver the kind of gut health that young chicks need to grow and thrive. In times of stress, the population of harmful GI bacteria tends to explode. “The human side of GI health is much more advanced than the animal side,” allows Pusey, but human health research is helping animal nutrition catch up.

The end result is that the diet of chickens and other livestock is rapidly advancing, and casual vegans can find comfort in knowing the chickens they consume ate like a millennial while alive.

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