CHICAGO/LOS ANGELES, April 7 (Reuters) - To meet increasing demand for meat raised without certain antibiotics, top U.S. chicken company Tyson Foods Inc and rival producers are turning to sanitizing wipes, bacteria-reducing fog and even oregano to keep birds healthy.
Some have spent years of trial and error on new techniques to figure out replacements for human drugs, part of a fight against the rise of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria in people.
Yum Brands Inc's KFC on Friday became the last of the big three U.S. chicken restaurants to move away from antibiotics important to human medicine. McDonald's Corp and privately held Chick-fil-A had already made similar commitments.
Nationwide, more than 42 percent of the U.S. chicken industry has already committed to reducing the use of antibiotics, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. With KFC's move, that number is set to grow.
See photos of KFC restaurants around the world:
KFC restaurants around the world
KFC restaurants around the world
This picture taken on March 8, 2015 shows people walk past a KFC fast food restaurant in Lhasa, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region.
US fast food giant KFC has opened its first restaurant in Tibet, the venue's property manager said on March 9, more than a decade after the chain's first attempt to establish a foothold ended in controversy. / AFP / STR / China OUT / CHINA OUT (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
TIANJIN, CHINA - 2016/02/09: Portrait of Colonel Sanders hung on the exterior of a KFC restaurant. On the early of February, KFC China triumphs in Lawsuit Over Mutant Chicken Rumors, received a combined fine of $91,191 from three companies who spread the false allegations that KFC had served genetically modified chickens with 'six wings and eight legs.'. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Picture taken on January 25, 2016, in Laval, northwestern France, shows a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) restaurant. / AFP / JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER (Photo credit should read JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)
KUNMING, YUNNAN PROVINCE, CHINA - 2015/12/14: A KFC restaurant in Changshui Airport. Yum,the parent company of KFC, has announced in October of 2015 to create a separate publicly traded China-focused company. The China division is expected to post a 10% operating profit in 2016. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ACCRA, GHANA - NOVEMBER 13: People walk past a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food restaurant on Oxford Street in the affluent Osu neighborhood, on November 13, 2015 in Accra, Ghana. The street is filled with shops, businesses and restaurants and is always bustling. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
A woman walks past the fried chicken shop 'KFC Halal', using the brand name of US fast food giant KFC, after it was closed by Iranian police, on November 3, 2015, in the capital Tehran. 'Police closed the 'KFC' restaurant as it didn't have authorisation and had been operating under a false license,' reported the news site of Iran's Young Journalist Club, which is affiliated with state television. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
An employee handles a tray of food inside a KFC restaurant, operated by Yum! Brands Inc. KFC and Yoma Strategic Holdings, in Yangon, Myanmar, on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015. Yum has had success over the past two decades by taking its KFC and Pizza Hut chains to more than 125 countries. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A sign indicates the way to the new 24-hour KFC fast food restaurant, operated by Yum! Brands Inc., in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, May 25, 2015. Yum! rose the most in more than a year after the hedge fund firm disclosed the 'significant stake' in the restaurant operator, saying the growth of the middle class in China will benefit the company. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Yum! Brands Inc. KFC restaurant stands in Shelbyville, Kentucky, U.S., on Saturday, April 18, 2015. Yum! Brands Inc. is scheduled to release earnings figures on April 21. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A car sits parked at the drive-thru of a Yum! Brands Inc. KFC restaurant in Peoria, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Yum! Brands Inc. is scheduled to report fourth-quarter 2014 earnings on Feb. 5. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MUMBAI, MAHARASHTRA, INDIA - 2013/11/02: The red facade of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, KFC, restaurant with a motor rikshaw parking in front. (Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A pedestrian walks past a KFC restaurant in Kolkata, India, on Monday, March 14, 2011. India faces pressure to step up its battle against price gains even after the steepest interest-rate increases among Asia's major economies, as oil costs rise and consumer demand strengthens. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A vehicle leaves the drive-thru area of a combined KFC and Taco Bell restaurant, both units of Yum! Brands Inc., in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, July 13, 2010. Yum! Brands Inc. reported a second-quarter adjusted profit of 58 cents a share. Photographer: Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CHINA - MAY 02: KFC signs are seen on Nanjing Road in Shanghai, China, on Wednesday, March 2, 2007. Yum! Brands Inc., the owner of the Pizza Hut and KFC restaurant chains, posted a 14 percent first-quarter profit gain that exceeded analysts' estimates on increased sales in China, its fastest growing region. (Photo by Ariana Lindquist/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 30: A KFC restaurant is shown October 30, 2006 in San Francisco, California. In New York today, KFC announced that it will phase out use of artificial trans fats at all its American restaurants to healthier linolenic soybean oil by April 2007. New York is weighing a ban on the artery-clogging oils in all city restaurants. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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KFC U.S. President Kevin Hochman called the chain's move a "major milestone" that should significantly increase the supply of bone-in chicken raised without medically important antibiotics. It should also open the door for smaller chains to follow KFC's move, he told Reuters.
KFC, which sells more than 65 million buckets of chicken a year, estimated that one-third of its suppliers were already transitioning to chicken raised with fewer antibiotics.
The company said it was late to shift away from human antibiotics because it had to persuade suppliers of bone-in chickens it uses to make the change.
The chain typically only buys up to one-third of birds in a flock because the others do not meet its specifications. That meant its suppliers needed to find other buyers before being able to curb use of the drugs to satisfy KFC, the company said.
The suppliers have improved hygiene and airflow in chicken houses to keep birds healthy and given them more room to move, Vijay Sukumar, chief food innovation officer for KFC's U.S. operations, told Reuters on Friday. That has raised costs but also reduced the need for drugs, he said. He did not give further details of the costs.
"We had to convince our suppliers to go for the change and then they worked with us," Sukumar said.
HERBS AND HYGIENE
Tyson, one of KFC's suppliers, set a goal in April 2015 to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from its broiler flocks, or those raised for meat, by the end of September 2017.
More than 90 percent of broiler chickens in its supply chain were raised without antibiotics also used in humans in its fiscal year 2016, Tyson told Reuters on Friday.
The company also plans to switch its retail line of Tyson-branded chicken products to birds raised without any antibiotics.
Perdue Farms, a competitor, said it eliminated the routine use of all antibiotics in chicken last year. It now puts oregano in birds' water, banking on the herb's antioxidants to keep them healthy, and takes other steps to avoid drugs.
Tyson said it has ramped up efforts to sanitize facilities and eggs that hatch into baby chicks, which are most vulnerable to sickness.
The company wanted eggs to be cleaner before they hatch and now asks farmers to rub them with sanitizing wipes before shipping them to a Tyson facility, said Bill Hewat, Tyson's director of international veterinarian services, during a tour of a Missouri hatchery last year.
Once the eggs arrive, Tyson places them in a room filled nightly with a fog of peracetic acid that is intended to keep the bacterial load as low as possible before eggs go into incubators, he said.
"It's an incubator for eggs," said Hewat. "Unfortunately it's also an incubator for bacteria."
The mortality rate for Tyson's chicks in their first week of life increased after the company initially removed human antibiotics, Hewat said. By September 2016, it had returned to close to where it was before the change, because of Tyson's extra efforts, he said.
Tyson has also started spraying hot water inside the hatchery to maintain a clean environment and increased spot-testing for bacteria.
"We wanted hospital-clean," said Kevin Gibbs, a production manager.
Tyson has found it difficult to explain to some farmers why the company wants to change its practices to shift away from antibiotics, according to Alan Johnston, a manager at the Tyson facilities in Missouri. "It's like turning the Titanic on some of these things," he said. (Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Bill Rigby)