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Explained: The Need to Find an Alternative to Antibiotics in Poultry Feed

Antibiotics are widely used for the prevention, control and treatment of diseases and bacterial infections in human and animals. It is also widely used to boost growth in livestock, including chickens.

Ayushi Raina
Poultry feeding
Poultry feeding

In recent years, the rise in "superbugs," or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, linked to antibiotic use in animal feed has sparked opposition, including from consumers and the medical fraternity, and resulted in a ban on the use of antibiotics in animal feed in Europe and other parts of the world.

In Australia, the mandate to remove antibiotics from the feed is optional. However fast food and supermarkets demand antibiotic-free chicken meat.

While this is excellent news for consumers, it has resulted in more regular outbreaks of animal enteric illnesses, such as necrotic enteritis, a highly infectious and frequently fatal disease that may wipe out poultry farms.

“We’re in a race against time to find a suitable alternative to antibiotics for the poultry industry,” says Professor Robert Swick, Industrial Coordinator for the Poultry Hub at the University of New England.

“Not only to prevent poultry disease outbreaks but also to efficiently control meat chicken production costs.”

Professor Swick explained that when antibiotics are eliminated from the diet, the birds may require up to 10-20% more grain and protein meals to attain the same market weight as when the antibiotics were there.

The poultry research group at UNE has created a necrotic enteritis disease model that may be used to determine if and how antibiotic alternatives can reduce the illness's impact on chicken health and poultry output in a controlled environment.

“To understand how antibiotics function and to look for alternatives, our model infects meat chickens with harmful bacteria called Clostridium perfringens. The germs, which are given to the birds when they are two weeks old, are enough to limit their growth but not to make them sick,” said Associate Professor Shubiao Wu, the lead researcher.

Short and medium-chain fatty acids, essential oils such as tea tree oil, brewer's yeast extract, plant extracts, and a lower protein diet have all been investigated so far. Some possible alternatives have been evaluated for their ability to promote gut health, regulate the expression of enzymes and nutrient transporters, and influence the immune system and intestinal microbiota.

“While we have uncovered evidence that fundamental improvements in animal health and nutrition utilization may ameliorate the impact of enteric illness like necrotic enteritis on chicken development and production, the quest for a clear answer continues,” stated A/Prof. Wu.

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