Today’s Lunch Special: Chicken Sans Antibiotics

A coalition of city schools are voting with their dollars and serving only antibiotic-free chicken as part of their school lunch programs.

by Dani Yokhna

Cafeteria Special: Chicken Sans Antibiotics - Photo by USDA/Flickr (

More than 469 million lunches are served each year in the six city school districts served by the Urban School Food Alliance, a coalition that shares best food-purchasing practices in order to improve the quality of school lunches and keep costs low. USFA members—including the school districts of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando—purchase more than $550 million in food and supplies annually, so when it announced at the end of last year that it planned to cease serving chicken raised with antibiotics, meat producers had no choice but to take notice.

The full spectrum of USFA’s chicken-procurement guidelines include:

That last one—no antibiotics ever—is a difficult one for me. I am 100 percent for eliminating the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics, but to say you’ll never eat meat from an animal that has been given antibiotics is either encouraging producers to not treat sick animals with antibiotics or it’s creating a great waste stream of animals that have been properly administered antibiotics as part of treating an illness. But given the choice between having chicken that has been given subtherapeutic antibiotics and chicken without antibiotics at all, I’ll take the chicken that has never been given antibiotics. USFA’s move communicates that these food providers feel chicken raised with antibiotics are not the best choice for their students.

Poultry Producers Say:

Just like it would be unreasonable to think California’s egg producers could have reconfigured the sizes of their cages and layouts of their barns to meet the new California egg law at the drop of a hat, chicken-meat producers also need time to adjust to the USFA no-antibiotics edict. While producers are working on figuring out what the heck to do with their chicken-feeding scheme, USFA will accept a written plan outlining their transition.

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The National Chicken Council says “antibiotic-free” chicken meat is all that’s available on the market because antibiotics aren’t actually found in the meat. This is a good point but completely glosses over the idea that antibiotic overuse in animal agriculture is contributing to antibiotic resistance in human medicine, even if there’s no drug residue in the meat.

Producers also point out that poultry raised without subtherapeutic antibiotics is more expensive, as there’s a greater chance of bird illness and death and birds not given the feed additive grow slower.

Fast Food Says:

It’s not just lunch ladies demanding change in animal antibiotic use. When you’re dining out, it’s easy to ask your favorite local-restaurant chef about where he sources meats. When making choices in restaurant chains, your choices can be trickier, but a few fast-food chains have also made headlines for forgoing antibiotics in their meats:

  • Almost a year ago, Chick-Fil-A said it would switch to chicken raised without antibiotics within five years.
  • Panera Bread has been serving antibiotic free chicken, roasted turkey, ham and sausage in salads and sandwiches since 2004.
  • BurgerFi hamburger is sourced from Angus cattle raised without antibiotics.
  • Chicken and pork from Chipotle is sourced from sources that don’t feed antibiotics.

Injecting Your Opinion

If you have a child in one of these school districts—or if you attend one of these school districts yourself—I’d like to know your thoughts about this switch to keeping (poultry) drugs out of schools! Please leave a comment below.

If you’d like your school district to consider changing the way it sources poultry for school meals, share with its leaders the School Food FOCUS-Pew Charitable Trusts website and the National Resources Defense Council case study about antibiotic use in poultry.

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