By Celeste Baumgartner
STORRS, Conn. – Experts project poultry meat to be a significant source of protein for the increasing human population, expected to hit 10 billion by 2050, said Kumar Venkitanarayanan, a veterinarian and animal science professor at UConn.
The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) recently awarded UConn a $10 million grant to study how to raise antibiotic-free poultry for food.
“I have been working on food safety for the past 24 years, especially poultry for the past 15 years,” Venkitanarayanan said. “I have been working with many universities, various schools in the United States. I conceived this grant, but it was teamwork; a lot of people helped me. Finally, we were lucky to get funded.”
The United States produces the most broiler chickens world-wide, more than 9 billion birds annually. The broiler industry has been able to meet the high production levels through selective breeding and by using antibiotics as growth promoters.
“USDA came out with a rule to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters,” Venkitanarayanan said. “In animal agriculture, including poultry, when you look at the increasing population in the future, this is going to be a great challenge for animal agriculture, especially poultry.”
There are three major components of the broiler sector, Venkitanarayanan explained. One component is the chicken, another is the humans involved and the third component is the environment.
Venkitanarayanan has assembled an interdisciplinary team of 30 researchers from 13 institutions to address these components.
“If you look at bird health or bird diseases as the major component, right now we have studies which show that as antibiotics are being regulated to curtailed, there are a few infectious diseases that are on the rise,” he said. “We have to come up with some strategies to control these diseases. We are using new generation vaccines, probiotics, phytochemicals, to come up with treatments to reduce these diseases.”
Another area of interest is feed ingredients. Researchers are looking at several insect species for protein. They will first investigate these things in house at the universities and then at commercial farms to check the efficacy of the treatments and be certain they are practical.
Concerning bird welfare, other scientists are working on ventilation to reduce moisture content in poultry housing and coming up with ammonia control products. Another group is working on reducing heat stress and improving well being in birds.
“The next complement is human health,” Venkitanarayanan said. “Salmonella and campylobacter infection are the two main components. We have a team of scientists, including my own lab, we will be looking into nanotechnology. The issue with some of the plant molecules is they are not water-soluble, they are not absorbed very well in the poultry gut, so we will make nano versions of these plant molecules so they can be water-soluble. Then we can easier give them as water supplementation to the birds.”
According to the USDA release on the project, the program’s other goals are to develop strategies for recycling poultry litter; enhance consumer confidence and acceptance of broiler meat. They will develop an outreach program targeting poultry producers and other stakeholders; empower the future workforce with skills needed for sustainable broiler production, and assess the socio-economic-environmental impact of proposed interventions. The group will also extend the educational platform on this topic to India and Mexico.
Experts will do cost/benefit analyses of the programs to measure the impacts on the industry and the environment. The researchers will begin the program this September.
Institutions involved in the project besides UConn are the University of Georgia, the University of Arkansas, the University of Mississippi, Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical University, Iowa State University, the University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Maryland, the USDA Agricultural Service of Maryland, North Carolina State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Appalachian State University.