At Kee Song Brothers' drug-free poultry farm in Yong Peng, Johor, the chickens are well taken care of. Perks include classical music, mood lighting, and probiotic-laced diet. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su
At a poultry farm in Yong Peng, Johor, 20,000 chickens rest on saw dust in dimly lit barns, with feed and water laced with probiotics automatically pumped into feeding pans. Piped-in classical music combined with changeable mood lighting are used to keep the birds tranquil. Curiously, the lighting turns neon blue when the birds are taken for slaughter.
"Look at this environment, chickens stay healthy and happy here," says Ong Kee Song, chairman of the Kee Song Group, which owns and operates the farm. "Even their droppings don't smell," adds Ong, who has been a vegetarian for 17 years after a stay at a Buddhist temple.
Traditional chicken farms are notorious for producing noxious fumes and the din of endlessly squawking birds. Growth hormones are often mixed into the feed to produce oversized breasts and wings that underdeveloped legs struggle to support. Most can’t even manage more than a few steps – if they actually to have space to move around.
And then there are farms like Ong’s. Just one of many initiatives that have been taken by food producers and suppliers around the world, it's not just about treating the animals more humanely to keep them in good health, but more importantly, it's to stop the unnecessary introduction of drugs and other chemicals into the food chain.
As food giants face growing pressure to offer healthier produce, Kee Song Group says its use of "good" bacteria in feed and water means it can meet one the industry's biggest challenges: how to mass produce drug and hormone-free poultry at a reasonable price.
A series of scandals in the last few years from melamine-tainted milk powder in China, horsemeat supplied as beef in Europe, and growth drugs causing lameness in US cattle has triggered a consumer backlash over food standards and safety.
Recently, Tyson Foods Inc pledged to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in chicken by 2017, one of the most aggressive timetables yet by a US poultry firm. The top American poultry producer, which supplies fast-food chains such as McDonald's Corp, is among a number of global companies incorporating probiotics into feed.
"For meat producers, reputation risks are becoming stronger driving companies to focus on safe ingredients specially in Europe and the US," says Pawan Kumar, director for food and agricultural research at Rabobank in Singapore.
Kee Song says the cost to produce drug-free chickens using probiotics is now only 10% to 12% more than using antibiotic-fed poultry. It sells these birds at a 30% premium in stores, far less than expensive free-range organic chicken. The firm annually produces around 4 million drug-free birds at its Malaysian farms in Yong Peng, 125km northwest of Singapore, and aims to expand sales to China and the West.
"Probiotics, either alone or in combination with essential oils and organic acids, are at the forefront of international approaches to replace antibiotics," says Wayne Bryden, Professor of Animal Science at the University of Queensland. Probiotics populate the gut with healthy bacteria in a bid to curb bad bacteria, while oils and organic acids are also often included in feed to aid digestion.
A team at the Australian university, partly funded by feed maker Ridley AgriProducts, have found in preliminary trials that using a probiotic can double the efficiency of use of protein from feed to boost weight gain in livestock.
An estimated 80% of antibiotics used in the US are administered to livestock with the use expected to surge by two thirds globally between 2010 and 2030. Scientists are worried the practice could spur antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
McDonald's has also pledged to eliminate chickens fed on human antibiotics at its US restaurants and is looking at similar steps in Asia. "In Asia Pacific, we will be working with our supply partners and relevant experts to implement this enhanced measure," says a McDonald’s spokesperson via email.
While demand for healthier products is increasing fast in the West, some experts say that in parts of Asia customers will not be prepared to pay more for drug-free poultry, though China could be a promising market after high-profile food scares.
Chia Tet Fatt, a molecular geneticist who previously was a professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University teamed up with Kee Song to produce the probiotic, lactobacillus, used at the farm. He also confirms the chickens have not been fed any drugs or antibiotics.
Tan Chee Kiang, vice president of Charoen Pokphand, the world's biggest animal feed miller, also says the feed it supplies to Kee Song is free of antibiotics.
By not using drugs, the poultry farms need to maintain stringent cleanliness measures to avoid the risk of infection and it takes three days more than conventionally produced chickens to attain a commercially viable weight of 1.8kg to 2kg. As well as supplying supermarkets, Kee Song also sells to some restaurants in Singapore, including French restaurant Cocotte, where the chicken is used for its signature dish. – Reuters/Naveen Thukral & Gavin Maguire