An investigation of antibiotic resistant bugs on supermarket chicken meat is driving German shoppers from poultry.
"We're having beef for dinner tonight," said one mother at a Cologne supermarket as she packed the day's groceries. "My daughter likes chicken better, but now we've definitely lost our appetite for chicken."
German chicken farmers, already facing stiff price competition, are reeling from a health scare after the environmental group BUND, the German chapter of Friends of the Earth, claimed on Monday that it had found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in half the poultry samples it took from German supermarkets.
BUND Chairman Hubert Weigner blamed the investigation's findings on the "misuse of antibiotics" on intensive farms.
The environmental group said the industry standard of squeezing up to 24 chickens into a space of one square meter (11 square feet) creates inherently unhealthy conditions.
"Only massive amounts of antibiotics make that possible," said Weiger, who is calling for stricter animal welfare laws.
A European Union broiler chicken directive calls for a stocking rate of no more that 39 kilograms (86 pounds) per square meter. With chickens generally weighing about two kilograms before slaughter, that frequently means around 20 birds are crammed into that space.
Demand for cheap meat
Chicken farmers are in damage control.
"I haven't used antibiotics for half a year now," said Rainer Wendt, president of the National Association of Chicken Producers.
At Rainer Wendt's farm in Lower Saxony, 120,000 chicks peep quietly. They're just days old, but after a month of fattening up they'll be ready to be sold as meat under the Wiesenhof brand.
Flipping through a folder of vet visits to prove his point, he said chicken farmers were abiding by regulations to minimize the use of antibiotics.
The use of drugs and medicines is regulated in Germany by the Pharmaceuticals Act, which says that antibiotics can only be used when animals become sick.
But in a factory farm, where tens of thousands of animals are housed, individual treatment is impossible. So when one chicken gets sick, they all get antibiotics.
Wendt's association is compiling its own study of the use of antibiotics. "We want to create transparency and to reduce the use of drugs," he said.
To avoid resorting to antibiotics, he said chicken farmers need to give their birds food additives to improve their immune systems; carefully control room temperatures; and follow hygiene standards.
But it's ultimately a question of cost.
"For one kilo chicken I earn five cents, and that doesn't take into account my investment costs. With prices like these, I can't work any differently," he said.
"Consumers want cheap meat and they're not willing to pay more for quality."
Organic chicken remains niche
A November study by the environment ministry of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the first to systematically review antibiotic use in chicken breeding in Germany, found that only organic farms were free of antibiotics.
"But our products have a price," said Volker Rahm, who has an organic farm with some 200 chickens in Dusseldorf.
Rahm's chickens have an outdoor enclosure with plenty of room to move around. They eat organic feed and it takes three months for them to grow big enough to be sold as meat.
"That's why one of our chickens costs 20 euros ($25.52) and not 4 euros," he said.
The market share of organic chicken in Germany is just 1 percent and hasn't risen in years.
No danger for consumers
Officials said the bacteria discovered on supermarket chicken poses no danger to consumers if they observe basic precautions.
"You should wash your hands after you cut up the meat and shouldn't then use the knife to chop vegetables," said Sabine Klein from the North Rhine-Westphalia consumer advice center.
She added that it is also important to thoroughly clean counters and sinks after any contact with raw meat, and to cook meat completely.
"There are antibiotic-resistant germs all around us. That's due to excessive use of antibiotics in animal farming, as well as in the medical treatment of humans," said Klein.
She said it wasn't yet established that factory farming practices were the source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on German chicken meat.
"It could be, but it's not certain," she said. "Just because the bacteria were found on the meat does not automatically mean it's the fault of the farmer."
"This can't continue. What we need is more effective protections for animals."
Author: Friederike Schulz / hf
Editor: Nathan Witkop