Book Review

By Katherine A. Carroll, NTP, NHF Executive Director

Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats

By Maryn McKenna

(ISBN 9781426217661; National Geographic Partners, LLC, 1145 17th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036; September 12, 2017, Kindle; $13.99, Hardcover, $18.36; 400 pages)


Maryn McKenna is a much-published journalist and author specializing in food policy, public, and global health. Talented author of the award-winning books Superbug and Beating Back the Devil: On the front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, her books, including Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats, read like exciting detective stories keeping you engaged in frightening, tough, and depressing subjects that might turn most away.

Ms. McKenna shares the history of antibiotics and intriguing information about how resistance to antibiotics developed. While this sounds dry, it is written like a detective story, with each chapter leading the reader eagerly into the next. As the book says, “This is a story woven from two parallel narratives: how we entered into routine antibiotic use and then questioned it, and how we created industrial chicken and then reconsidered it.”

Chicken is the industrialized World’s most popular meat and the one most likely to carry antibiotic resistance and food-borne illnesses. Big Chicken is a positively riveting investigative and historical narrative – a must-read as antibiotic resistance is a global hazard threatening your life right now. McKenna shows how, in a post-antibiotic world, surgery would be too risky to attempt, and ordinary health problems, such as a scrape, tooth extraction, or broken limb, could kill. Sadly, she methodically and scientifically documents our arrival in the post-antibiotic era with the last-chance antibiotic “Colistin,” to which resistance arose in 2013. She reveals how this resistance was accomplished by a “plasmid” showing how bacterial highways have educated researchers and investigators in ways they never dreamed possible. Big Chicken reveals clearly that it is always what you don’t know that will hurt you and now the World is paying for it increasingly with our very lives.

A deadly combination of the advent of agricultural antibiotics 70 years ago with then-exciting innovation, outrageous profit, and failure to anticipate unintended consequences, growth promoters and antibiotic use in food-production animals (and bees) have since altered the entire structure of agriculture. As important, this combination has affected land use, labor relations, international trade, animal welfare, and the diet and health of much of the World.

Bringing antibiotic resistance from the past to the present, McKenna cites a recent study showing that women who ate chicken regularly were most likely to contract an antibiotic-resistant UTI. This hit close to home when my (non-organic) chicken-loving elderly mother nearly died during her two-week hospital stay due to an antibiotic-resistant UTI going into sepsis, then finally into Clostridium difficile. The author details others who have faced death due to antibiotic resistance, bringing her warning words to life.

McKenna chillingly and precisely shows that we are at the end of solutions by following the thread of epidemics and the fascinating and unexpected mysteries that unfolded in this deadly learning curve. This book is tremendously interesting and vitally important whether you eat food-production animals or honey or not – every one of us is at risk and in danger.

The urgent resistance issue impacts the Planet so greatly that the UN called a “high-level” meeting in September 2016 to address antibiotic resistance with an update planned in 2018. The UN calls antibiotic resistance “the greatest and most urgent global risk.” One flaw in Ms. McKenna’s excellent book is portraying the UN as leading the charge against antibiotic resistance when in fact the National Health Federation, the World’s oldest health-freedom organization and the one with the only seat at Codex where food law is set for the World, has been leading this battle against routine antibiotic use at Codex years before the UN woke up. NHF is fighting this issue again at Codex in April. Right before the 2016 UN meeting, a study reported that one-in-four British supermarket chickens carried multidrug-resistant bacteria. The day of the UN meeting, researchers disclosed a new type of MRSA suspected to have entered Denmark in poultry.

Ms. McKenna shows that antibiotic-resistant infections caused 700,000 deaths around the World – 23,000 in the U.S., 25,000 in Europe, and 63,000 babies in India. Projections by 2050 reveal antibiotic resistance costing the World $100 trillion and causing 10 million deaths annually. Additionally, foodborne epidemics treated with antibiotics – with chicken the usual culprit – are a huge concern.

The FDA turned a blind eye for years, bowing to industry at the expense of science and health. The U.S. has lagged far behind other countries in addressing or tackling this problem. Industry has relabeled antibiotics in feed to allow their continued use as contraband. Some (which McKenna names) are still, amazingly, denying we even have a problem!

I loved meeting all the players through her adroit storytelling – the good and bad, the whistleblowers, the farmers, their innocent neighbors, suppliers, buyers, grocery stores, and restaurant owners, local and international authorities, and the sleuths who unravel the mysterious world of bacteria. Learning how bacteria travel and the havoc wreaked creates a highly engaging read. It scared me sufficiently and I’m sure others also will never say again, “I’ll have the chicken” unless it is organic and preferably not cut but whole (which reduces the risk of Salmonella).

McKenna shows that “organic” is surpassed by French Label Rouge husbandry methods and a few U.S.-based poultry farmers raising hardy old strains of chickens our grandparents knew with integrity beyond the narrow confines of organic’s scope. I learned so incredibly much from this valuable book. It gave me hope that industry will soon satisfy the desires of savvy consumers and honor ethical animal husbandry regardless of regulations. If you buy and read the book, I hope you will henceforth buy chicken only from the poultry farmers displaying this high-level integrity.

McKenna leaves little if anything unsaid. Along with mountains of facts and research, there is much wisdom in her book and real workable models and solutions, even solutions to antibiotic use. Having raised chickens as a child, I found the history of chickens to be captivating as well. The commitment to preserving old bloodlines and the farmers protecting and preserving them is quite interesting. There is a wealth of resources listed in the body of the book. Encouraging were the stories of heroic farmers who listened to the consumer and created a sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry model, one we can all feel good about and safe eating.

The World must solve the antibiotic-resistance dilemma now. China and other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) will demand more meat now that income is rising. But, sadly, China currently uses more antibiotics than any other country in the World. China’s use in food-productions animals is projected to reach 30 percent of all antibiotics produced globally by 2030.

The Big Chicken published in the UK in February 2018 and over a year earlier in the United States. Interestingly, several reviews called Ms. McKenna’s book “scary.” Yet, I highly recommend taking the time to read Big Chicken. We must stop prescribing and using antibiotics as a first line of defense.

There is so much packed inside this fascinating book. With 42 pages of research references listed in the Bibliography, it is clear Ms. McKenna is a solid researcher as well as an excellent expose’ writer. I learned a tremendous amount of detailed, valuable information and will refer to her documentation of research for the Codex Committee on Residues of Vet Drugs in Foods (CCRVDF) meetings that the National Health Federation participates in as we shape global policy.

As the National Health Federation participated once again recently in Chicago at the Codex Committee on Residues of Vet Drugs in Foods, this book will even act as a reference for some of the arguments that NHF presented there. To its credit, Codex is attempting to address the problem of antibiotic resistance; but much more must be done. Codex needs to align more tightly with the UN in understanding that life on our Planet is in a state of dire emergency and that routine human and animal antibiotic use must stop at once. We literally have nowhere to turn now as antibiotic resistance is established in all antibiotics used in human and animal medicine. Greed and ignorance got us here and it is up to us now to find a way out. Fortunately, McKenna’s book has answers.