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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Tyson Foods Inc, the largest U.S. poultry producer, plans to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its chicken flocks by September 2017 - one of the most aggressive timelines yet set by an American poultry company.
The Arkansas-based chicken and meat giant also said it is working on ways to curtail such on-farm drug practices at its other protein businesses, which include pork and beef.
The move marks the latest push by the livestock and food industries to reduce the use of antibiotics crucial to human health in meat production.
Authorities are concerned that the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals could spur the creation of antibiotic resistant superbugs in humans, creating a health hazard.
Tyson's move, announced on Tuesday morning, aims to help the company meet a deadline recently outlined by McDonald's Corp. to have its U.S. restaurants gradually stop buying chicken raised with human antibiotics over the next two years.
But the company, a key chicken supplier to McDonald's, said in a statement to Reuters that its plans are part of an ongoing effort and "go beyond one customer."
Tyson said it is also forming working groups with independent farmers, company suppliers, veterinarians and others to talk about how to develop ideas to cut the use of antibiotics vital to fighting human infections in its U.S. beef, pork and turkey supply chains.
The working groups will begin meeting this summer.
While veterinary use of antibiotics is legal, controversy has grown over the routine feeding of antibiotics that are important to humans to otherwise healthy chicken, cattle and pigs in a bid to stave off disease and help the animals grow more quickly.
Tyson said it has already stopped using all antibiotics in its 35 broiler hatcheries and has cut human antibiotics used to treat its broiler chickens by more than 80 percent since 2011. The company said it requires a veterinary prescription when antibiotics are used on its broiler farms.
"Given the progress we've already made reducing antibiotics in our broilers, we believe it's realistic to shoot for zero by the end of our 2016 fiscal year," Donnie Smith, president and chief executive of Tyson Foods, said in a statement.
Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Pilgrim's Pride Corp., the nation's second-largest U.S. poultry processor, would cut all antibiotics from a quarter of its chicken production by 2019.
Rival poultry processor Perdue Farms Inc. told Reuters more than 95 percent of the chickens it produces are raised without antibiotics approved for human use, and more than half are raised with no antibiotics of any kind.
Sandwich chain Chick-fil-A in 2014 gave its producers five years to meet its commitment to go antibiotic-free for chicken. Perdue is a major supplier to Chick-fil-A.
Tyson has been working with livestock drug companies and others to test a variety of alternatives to antibiotics to protect birds, ranging from probiotics to essential oils derived from plant extracts, the company told Reuters.
However, alternatives to human antibiotics are also needed for treating ill birds, the company said. It is providing funds to help accelerate research into disease prevention and antibiotic alternatives to be used on farms.
Tyson declined to say how much the company will spend to buch such funding of livestock pharmaceuticals and alternatives.
Some poultry industry experts say the options for non-human drugs to treat certain diseases in broiler chickens can be limited, and say animal pharmaceutical firms have been slow to invest for the development of new chicken-only antibiotics.
Tyson said it plans to meet its 2017 antibiotic-withdrawal timeline, but there could be some exceptions.
"We won't jeopardize animal well-being just to get there," Smith said. "We'll use the best available treatments to keep our chickens healthy, under veterinary supervision."
Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago. Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Richard Pullin