SALISBURY, MD. — As part of long-term efforts to reduce antibiotic use in its poultry production, Perdue Foods announced it has removed all antibiotics from its chicken hatcheries. The company said it has not used antibiotics to promote growth since 2007 but uses an animal-only antibiotic to control intestinal parasites and may use antibiotics to treat illness in sick flocks.

“By no longer using any antibiotics in our hatcheries or any human antibiotics in feed, we’ve reached the point where 95% of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics, and the remainder receive them only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian,” said Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice-president of food safety, quality and live operations for Perdue Foods.

Eliminating the use of antibiotics in the hatcheries has taken five years to implement and marks the latest milestone in Perdue’s 12-year plan to evolve its approach to antibiotics.

“This is not something that you simply turn a switch to implement,” Dr. Stewart-Brown said. “Moving away from the conventional use of antibiotics in animal agriculture means more than taking human antibiotics out of your programs. You have to develop programs from breeder operations, through the hatchery and feed mill and onto the farm that are sustainable without that use. It takes a lot more effort with more stringent standards, but we believe this is what consumers expect from Perdue.”

The company began phasing out conventional use of antibiotics in 2002, in response to consumer concern over the potential impact of the use of the drugs on the ability to effectively treat humans.

In 2005, Perdue eliminated the use of specific medically important antibiotics in its feeds, including floroquinolones, which were later banned from animal agriculture by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. All human antibiotics were successfully removed from the company’s animal feed by 2007, when Perdue launched its Harvestland no-antibiotics-ever product line.

“No-antibiotics-ever was a very small part of the market, but it gave the opportunity to learn what it takes to successfully run such a program,” Dr. Stewart-Brown said. “And we took those learnings and applied them across our entire company. We also found that it is not realistic or responsible to eliminate all antibiotics. No matter how carefully you raise animals, some are going to be exposed to infections that can only be treated with antibiotics. As veterinarians, we have a responsibility to properly treat those animals. But, when we do treat chickens with antibiotics, we do it in a very focused and limited way that allows us to treat a single house and for the shortest duration possible, generally no longer than three days.”

The company also became one of the first to eliminate arsenic in chicken feed. In 2011, Perdue acquired Coleman Natural Foods, which added chicken and no-antibiotics turkey, pork and beef.

Removing antibiotics from the hatcheries marks the final step in Perdue’s progress toward responsible use of the drugs.

“Most hatcheries typically use small amounts of antibiotics when vaccinating the eggs,” Dr. Stewart-Brown said. “The primary purpose is to prevent infection from entering through the vaccination site. In fact, this use is even allowed by the National Organic Program — though we don’t allow it in our organic products. We invested in our hatcheries to create a clean environment and are able to successfully vaccinate eggs without antibiotics.”