When you've covered a topic long enough, you get the idea you've heard it all. Then along comes a factoid like the one I discovered while preparing my recent piece on the recent blockbuster Consumer Reports study on supermarket chicken and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I learned that at the industrial hatcheries that churn out chicks for the poultry industry, eggs are commonly injected with tiny amounts of an antibiotic called gentamicin, which is used in people to treat a variety of serious bacterial infections.
That alone dropped my jaw—what, the practice of dosing chickens with antibiotics has to begin literally in the egg? But get this: The practice is allowed in organic production, too. Organic code forbids use of antibiotics in animals, yet in a loophole I'd never heard of, such standards kick in on "the second day of life"for chicks destined for organic poultry farms. (The practice isn't used for the eggs we actually eat—just the ones that hatch chicks to be raised on farms.)
John Glisson, a veterinarian for the US Poultry & Egg Association, told me the practice originated decades ago, when the industry began vaccinating chicken embryos to prevent a common condition called Marek's disease, a deadly herpes virus that attacks chickens. To sterilize the small hole required to get the vaccine into the egg, the industry would shoot in a bit of gentamicin. Glisson added that it remains a common practice, but that it has declined in recent years as (he insisted) the industry has begun to move away from reliance on antibiotics. Neither Glisson nor the FDA could give me precise data on how often it's used these days. The Food and Drug Administration allows such injections only when prescribed by a veterinarian, a spokesperson said.
So what's the problem with giving chickens a little antibiotic boost as they start life? For starters, the practice could promote the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. A 2007 peer-reviewed study of Maryland and Virginia workers in conventional chicken houses were 32 times more likely to carrying gentamicin-resistant E. colithan their neighbors who don't work in the industry.