‘Big Chicken’ describes how antibiotics changed life at dinner table

All you never knew about chicken and didn’t even think to ask.

That’s what Atlanta public health journalist and author Maryn McKenna dishes out in “Big Chicken,” her full-bodied examination of chicken production in this country. McKenna zeroes in on the industry’s longtime reliance on antibiotics in order to quickly grow nice and plump birds for our dining pleasure.

Did you know that it takes just 38-48 days to grow a chick from itty-bitty fluff to slaughter?

But what price have we been paying for that fast production? That’s what McKenna, who also spent 10 years covering the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reveals in her new book. Her previous titles are “Beating Back the Devil” (2004), which follows disease detectives, and “Superbug” (2010), a narrative history of antibiotic resistance. (McKenna’s 2015 TED Talk, “What Do We Do When Antibiotics Don’t Work Anymore?” has had 1.5 million views.)

“Big Chicken” is a catchy title (and of course has nothing to do with that longtime landmark in Marietta). Its less-catchy subtitle captures the scope of this author’s intensive four-year effort: “The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats.”

While researching “Superbug,” McKenna came across a statistic that became the impetus for “Big Chicken”: In one year in this country, we sell four times as many antibiotics for use in animals as we do in humans. One independent 2011 study, calculated via prescription drug sales, showed American livestock received 29.9 million pounds that year, compared with 7.7 million pounds for humans.

“And that didn’t make any sense to me, first because I couldn’t imagine that that many animals were sick,” McKenna said.

She discovered that chickens, pigs and other agricultural animals were not sick, that we were using the antibiotics to increase their growth and to protect them against the conditions that they’re raised in. “And that was shocking to me,” the author said.

The use of antibiotics in chicken has made it so inexpensive that it’s the most popular meat in this country — therefore the meat most likely to transmit food-borne illnesses and antibiotic resistance.

Alexander Fleming, who invented penicillin in 1945, warned back then that misuse of antibiotics would undermine their power, even render these drugs ineffective. “And the entire industry that his invention created didn’t listen and went on its merry way and put us in the situation we are in now,” McKenna said.

Use of antibiotics in agriculture has been routine practice for more than 65 years. Around the globe, the majority of meat animals receive antibiotics on most days of their lives — about 63,150 tons per year, or 126 million pounds.

Meticulously researched and thoughtfully organized, “Big Chicken” is an absorbing read. McKenna begins and ends the book “with scenes of me stuffing my face with delicious chicken.” Her chicken saga is a true-life cautionary tale she calls “a story of good intentions and unintended consequences.” She hopes it will attract general readers like those who helped make “Fast Food Nation” (2001) and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (2006) best sellers.

In “Big Chicken,” McKenna writes that around World War II, poultry farming “was the first good thing that happened to the northeast counties of Georgia in as long as anyone there could remember.” The hilly region had been in dire straits during the Great Depression. Ravaged by the Civil War, it struggled miserably at cotton (and suffered a boll weevil infestation in 1921). It was also devastated by a 1903 tornado that left 100 dead, then again in 1936, when a “double tornado” left hundreds dead, “flattening most of Gainesville.”

Today, Georgia raises more chickens than any other state: 1.4 billion broilers a year. If it were it’s own nation, Georgia would be the fourth-largest chicken economy in the world — “somewhere near China and Brazil,” McKenna notes. (Alabama, home of the giant Tyson Foods, is the No. 2 state).

More insight from author McKenna:

Q: You’ve called this the greatest slow-brewing health crisis of our time.

A: It absolutely is that. That's why the stories in this book are so important. Antibiotics resistance kills, conservatively, 700,000 people around the world each year.

Q: Didn’t your story take a turn while you were investigating it?

A: The story began to change as I reported it, thanks to U.S. consumers turning against farm antibiotics use. Here in 2017, chicken appears to be the first protein that's going to turn away from routine antibiotic use. What I thought was going to be an exposé also became an account of cultural change.

Q: Who’s leading the way in phasing out antibiotics in the poultry realm?

A: Perdue Farms has declared that they are functionally antibiotic-free at this point. Chick-fil-A said in 2014 that they had a five-year plan, so now we're three years into that. Most, not all, chicken production in the United States is now re-evaluating its antibiotic use. But that's not true for cattle or for pigs. So we still need to reform the rest of our antibiotic use. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, antibiotic use is rising rapidly among the developing economies who have a larger hunger for meat and much larger populations than we do.

Q: In Chapter 12, titled “The View from the Barn,” you take readers to the fourth-generation Cooley Farms in Roberta, Ga., 85 miles south of Atlanta, where today Leighton and dad Larry Cooley grow 500,000 chickens at a time for Perdue — 3 million birds a year. Are the Cooleys a good example of farmers who can successfully phase out antibiotics and come out OK?

A: The Cooleys are contract farmers, as are almost all chicken farmers across the country. That means they have limited say in how they raise their birds; the company they farm for makes most of those decisions. They are very responsible farmers, now farming antibiotic-free. But they have a long history in farming and were great witnesses for why chicken farmers have done the things they've done over decades.

Q: This might’ve been a tough, dry read. How were you able to make it so engaging?

A: To my great fortune, these stories of antibiotic misuse with regard to chicken production are studded with amazing characters. I felt like all I had to do was get out of the way and let those characters tell their own tales. (Just one among many is) Frank Reese, a kind of priest of chicken, who lives in the middle of the Kansas prairies and is preserving the old lines of chicken that the industry rejected. Not just because he loves them, but because he believes that the industry will need their genetics once again.

Q: You’ve been called “an Upton Sinclair.” In 1906, Sinclair published the novel “The Jungle,” which exposed horrific and unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry. Sinclair said he “aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Can you take a stab at a similar sentence, in relation to “Big Chicken”?

A: My intentions, 111 years later, might be that I was aiming at people's stomachs, and I hope I hit them in the conscience.

"Big Chicken: "The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats." by Maryn McKenna (National Geographic, 389 pages, $27).

McKenna will speak, answer questions, sign books:

6-8 p.m. Oct. 17, Room 303, third floor, Anthropology Building, Emory University, 1557 Dickey Drive, Atlanta. (free; make reservations online; 404-727-8766). Sponsored by the Emory Center for the Study of Human Health. Barnes & Noble to sell books. https://goo.gl/AdmeyY