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Why Tyson antibiotic-free chicken is a bigger deal than GMO-free Chipotle (+video)

Tyson Foods announced Tuesday that it would phase out the use of human antibiotics from its chicken supply by 2017, as the poultry industry at large shifts away from the practice. 

As consumers become increasingly mindful of what goes into their food, the race to win them over has kicked into high gear among America’s restaurants and food suppliers. In terms of perception, the two companies that have made the biggest splashes on that front this week -Tyson Foods and Chipotle – could not be more different. 

Chipotle, which announced the end of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in its restaurants Monday, is a darling among investors and food advocates alike. Tyson Foods, which announced Tuesday that it will phase out antibiotics used in human medicine from its poultry supply by 2017, is quintessential Big Food. An estimated 1 in 5 chickens sold in the United States come from Tyson; with $11 billion in annual poultry sales, it supplies the chicken found in McDonald’s chicken nuggets, among other things. But Tyson’s announcement is a far more impactful one for the food industry at large, both because of its sheer size and the scientific support for such a move.

The poultry giant’s shift away from human antibiotics wasn’t a sudden one. For decades, the meat industry has used human antibiotics as a way to speed up growth in food animals. It also has resisted years of calls to discontinue the practice from public health experts, who say that it increases the risk of dangerous strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans.

Tyson acknowledged those worries in its announcement Tuesday: “Antibiotic resistant infections are a global health concern,” said Donnie Smith, president and chief executive officer of Tyson Foods, in a company release. “We’re confident our meat and poultry products are safe, but want to do our part to responsibly reduce human antibiotics on the farm.”

The company said it was also working to reduce human antibiotic use in the company’s beef, pork, and turkey supply chains.

In addition to its potential public safety impact, however, Tyson’s announcement also has an economic one. The poultry industry has been gradually moving away from antibiotics over the past few years, with restaurants leading the way. Last year, Chick-fil-A, which sells more chicken than any other restaurant chain, pledged to make the chicken served on its menu completely antibiotic-free within five years. Last month, McDonald’s committed to taking chicken raised on human antibiotics off its menus within the next two years. The fast food chain is Tyson's biggest buyer. so that move effectively forced the producer's hand.

Tyson has previously announced curbing antibiotic use in its chicken feed and hatcheries, and other major producers including Perdue and Pilgrim’s have cut their usages drastically. 

Such changes will make it easier financially for smaller producers and restaurants to make the shift, experts say. “Economically, other companies will say: 'We can follow this model,' ” Gail Hansen, a public health veterinarian and senior officer of antibiotic resistance with Pew Charitable Trusts, told the Monitor on the heels of McDonald’s announcement last month.

Recommended: The new ethics of eating

A multitude of factors, then, prompted Tyson to move in the direction its industry was already headed. Chipotle, meanwhile, has been at the forefront of the more responsible food movement. It’s made commitments to buying more humanely-raised meat, organic vegetables, and hormone-free dairy products a part of its business model; in 2014, it even stopped serving pork at many of its restaurants upon discovering one of its major suppliers was not up to its standards. The restaurant chain’s GMO-free announcement was the first of its kind among major restaurant chains.

But unlike with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, there is no credible scientific research as of yet showing that GMOs are dangerous, despite a widespread public perception that they are (according to a recent Pew Research Center study, just 37 percent of the public thinks GMOs are safe to eat, but 88 percent of scientists do). Instead, experts say, the move comes more as an appeal to consumers mistrustful of an industry that has spent billions fighting GMO labeling initiatives – and that beyond safety implications, reliance on GMOS could lead to other problems, including allowing food giants like Monsanto to monopolize seed markets.

“This is not a safety issue,” New York University food studies professor Marion Nestle wrote in a blog post Monday. “GMO corn ingredients were not making Chipotle customers sick. Chipotle customers are offended that GMO foods are not labeled and that they have no choice about whether to eat them ... This – and the rise in sales of organic foods – are a direct result of the industry’s own actions.”

Furthermore, Chipotle’s move is less likely to be a tipping point for the restaurant industry at large. For one, getting GMOs out of a food supply, particularly one involving corn, is difficult and expensive. Plus, the public opinion in the GMO debate is turning, albeit slowly. Recently, Bill Nye reversed his anti-GMO position; other critics have linked GMO alarmists to climate change deniers. "After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s.," Cornell researcher Mark Lynas wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times on Sunday.

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