Just months after Big Pork said it couldn’t be done, Tyson is raising up to a million pigs without antibiotics

This little piggy was raised without antibiotics.
This little piggy was raised without antibiotics.
Image: AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini
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Just a few months after pork groups ran a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal chastising Subway for its call for an antibiotic-free meat supply, the largest meat company in the US is launching an antibiotic-free (and hormone and gestation crate-free) pork line. The move could make Tyson Foods one of the largest—if not the largest—antibiotic-free pork supplier in the country.

Tyson unveiled its new Open Prairie Natural Pork brand on Monday (Feb. 22) at the Annual Meat Conference in Nashville. While other companies have been meeting the growing demand for “natural” pork through acquisitions—Spam-maker Hormel purchased Applegate Farms in July, and Perdue acquired the natural meat pioneer Niman Ranch in September—Tyson has been adding antibiotic-free offerings on its own, with antibiotic-free beef already for sale and antibiotic-free chicken promised by September 2017.

Other major pork suppliers such as Smithfield Foods and Cargill are already removing gestation crates, and many pork producers are moving away from ractopamine, a commonly used but controversial growth promoter. But antibiotic use remains entrenched in American pork production, despite links to antibiotic resistance in humans.

The pork industry depends on antibiotics both for disease prevention and growth promotion. The National Pork Producers Council, which represents 67,000 pork producers, and the National Pork Board, a research and promotion group under the authority of the USDA, ran the aforementioned ad in October, saying a fully antibiotic-free approach is inhumane and unfair to farmers—that while the industry is increasing veterinary oversight and phasing out drugs used for growth promotion, “a move to NO antibiotics of any kind… could result in the unnecessary suffering or death of such animals.”

But this approach, phasing out the use of antibiotics for growth purposes but allowing it for disease prevention (and not just treatment), would not necessarily cut down the quantity of antibiotics administered since “nobody knows” what percentage are used for each purpose, Chris Hodges, CEO of the National Pork Board told Quartz in an interview in August.

For now, Tyson and the pork board are framing this as a matter of consumer choice, not public health. “We believe in giving consumers options,” Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson told Quartz, calling animal welfare “extremely important” and saying sick animals will be treated with antibiotics if a veterinarian advises it, but then “will not be included in the Open Prairie Natural program.”

Asked about Tyson’s announcement, the pork board stood by its stated policy but added, “we do appreciate that consumers have choices and this is yet another pork choice.”

Meanwhile, Pew Charitable Trusts, a long-time advocate for antibiotic reduction, is applauding the move. “We think Tyson really has to be commended for this step,” Karin Hoelzer, officer for health programs, told Quartz.

While Tyson expects the new line to make up less than 5% of the company’s pork business, because of the company’s massive size, that could still be a lot of pigs. Tyson’s pork production facilities have a weekly capacity of 456,000 hogs, and operate, on average, at 88% capacity, for a total of about 20.9 million hogs processed a year, according to its most recent annual SEC filing. Five percent is more than a million hogs annually. (Tyson would not confirm Quartz’s calculations.)

Tyson did not provide other specifics of the hogs’ new living arrangements, but the new line is evidence that pork can, indeed, be produced in large quantities without the routine use of antibiotics.