Antibiotics and Chicken: What You Need to Know NOW

According to a recent Reuters article, six of the largest school districts across the country will make a switch to antibiotic-free chicken. Created by the Urban School Food Alliance—a cooperative buying group that serves more than three million students daily in school districts such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and Orlando—the new standards will require all chicken products served to come from birds that were never fed antibiotics.

How come? The effort is designed to protect children in the wake of the recent rise in dangerous "superbugs"—bacteria that gain resistance to conventional medicines.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all animals carry bacteria in their intestines. When given antibiotics, the antibiotics kill most bacteria. However, resistant bacteria survive and multiply. That bacteria can then spread to animal products (including chicken), to fruits and vegetables through contaminated water or soil, to prepared food through contaminated surfaces, and to the environment when animals poop. People, including children, can become ill with resistant infections through contaminated food or a contaminated environment. The infections they develop may cause mild or severe illness, possibly even death.

The CDC calls for judicious use of antibiotics in both humans and animals because of the role they play in creating and spreading resistant bacteria. According to a recent report by the CDC and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), an estimated two million people become infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year in the United States. The report also states that at least 23,000 people die annually as a direct result of those infections and that many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

I applaud the Urban School Food Alliance for taking steps to offer antibiotic-free chicken as part of an effort to feed children more healthful—and potentially less harmful—food. Chicken is popular among parents and kids alike, and offering it at schools—emphasizing white meat varieties minus the skin and preparing it in healthful ways—provides kids with high quality protein to fuel and fill them as well as other vital nutrients including niacin, vitamin B6, selenium, and phosphorus.

Requiring that the chicken offered to kids is antibiotic-free can also provide at least a little reassurance to parents, especially if they're concerned about the safety of chicken because of the recent outbreak of Salmonella linked to chicken intake not to mention a Consumer Reports survey that found a good proportion of chicken samples had bacteria that may be resistant to antibiotics or other drugs.

Whether or not your child goes to one of the schools that will soon mandate antibiotic-free chicken, there are several steps you can take as a family when purchasing, handling, and preparing poultry and other meats at home to reduce your chances for getting sick. When buying chicken, look for the USDA Organic Seal on labels. When handling or preparing raw chicken, keep it separated from other foods, and don't re-use dirty cutting boards or utensils. Cook the chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (and don't forget to wash the thermometer in warm soapy water in-between temperature readings).

For more tips, check out my previous Scoop on Food post, Is Eating Chicken Risky? What Parents Need to Know. And for more on antibiotic resistance in foods, check out the following infographic, Antibiotic Resistance from the Farm to the Table, by the CDC.

Private chef Jenna Helwig demonstrates how to cut up a chicken.

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