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Colonel-quality chicken

By Anya Vanecek
Public Health Digital Campaigner

The Colonel started frying up his famous Kentucky Fried Chicken around 1930, when he opened up a storefront on Route 25, which ran across Kentucky during the heyday of the great American road trip. Yet to arrive was the American factory farm, and the overuse of antibiotics that feeds it.

Last week, KFC announced a re-commitment to quality -- a "Re-colonelzation" of its ingredients and cooking techniques. It seems only right that this would include a return to using chicken raised without the routine use of antibiotics -– the only kind of chicken the Colonel would have cooked back in the day. It didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong –- I appreciate high-quality cooking as much as anyone. But as one of the tens of thousands of consumers calling for KFC to help stop the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms, I know that they missed an important ingredient. We need a commitment to public health, one that includes a move away from chicken raised with our life-saving medicines.

The discovery of antibiotics and subsequent mass-production of these life-saving drugs was one of the greatest medical achievements of the 20th century. We rely on antibiotics to treat minor illnesses like ear infections; to complete rounds of chemotherapy safely; to continue scraping our knees without fear of contracting life-threatening blood infections.

Beginning in the 1950’s meat production was accelerated by the routine use of antibiotics, after researchers discovered that daily low doses of these medicines helped animals grow fatter, faster. Now the drugs are also commonly given to animals that aren’t sick to prevent disease caused by often unhealthy and unsanitary living conditions. This routine use accelerates the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

This problem is a classic example of too much of a good thing. As we use antibiotics when and where they’re not necessary, we stand to lose them altogether. The routine use of antibiotics kills off most of the bacteria. The bacteria that survive are resistant, meaning they will continue to be able to withstand the drug and, worse, can pass that resistance on to other bacteria. These resistant “superbugs” can spread into communities and cause illnesses that are difficult, if not impossible, to treat.

Antibiotic resistant infections pose a serious threat to public health, sickening two million Americans a year. At least 23,000 die. The fact of the matter is, the link between routine antibiotic use on farms and the rapid spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria is too clear to allow the practice to continue.

Colonel Sanders was born before the dawn of antibiotics, and saw these miracle drugs change the world. How would he react if he found out that we were wasting the greatest medical achievement of his lifetime on animals that aren’t sick and, as a result, putting everyone at risk? We are steadily approaching the post-antibiotic era, which, as in the Colonel’s early days, is a world in which life-saving medicines simply no longer work. Mind boggling? We think so.

When Colonel Sanders opened his first restaurant, hand-made and high-quality meals were the pinnacle of dining. That much hasn’t changed, and we’re glad to see KFC returning its roots. But if KFC truly wants to honor Colonel Sander’s famous chicken, it needs to serve meat raised without the routine use of antibiotics. That’s what the Colonel would have served, and it’s what KFC must start to serve if we are to avoid the worst effects of the post-antibiotics era. There’s no greater “commitment to quality” than that!

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