How factory farms play chicken with antibiotics

Mother Jones looks at the use of antibiotics in intensively reared chickens.

Dr. Bob Lawrence, the director of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins, which has generated reams of research on the dangers of routine anti­biotic use on farms, ran into ceo Jim Perdue at a conference recently. Lawrence asked Perdue what had driven the company’s flight from antibiotics. “I was hoping he would say, ‘The research coming out of your center,'” Lawrence says. Instead, Perdue credited worried consumers.

Stewart-Brown says he and his colleagues saw an increase in queries about antibiotics from consumers starting in 2002—perhaps not coincidentally a year after the publication of Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser’s bestseller about the dark side of the US food system. Far more than its competitors, Perdue has a history of courting consumers directly. For decades, while rivals sold essentially unbranded chicken to supermarkets, Frank Perdue peppered consumers with quirky TV ads featuring himself—a balding, skinny pitchman who repeatedly set the quality of his chicken apart from his competitors’. His tagline: “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” The ads gave the company a human face, Stewart-Brown says, making people feel invested. Perdue learned to take its customers’ concerns seriously: “You can drown them with science to suggest they shouldn’t be worried, but the worry is real.”