China Busted for Doping Chickens with Illegal Drugs

China is facing another food safety scandal after the Beijing-controlled China Central Television (CCTV) said that a commercial chicken producer had supplied KFC and McDonald’s with chicken that had been doped with illegal drugs. The CCTV report, which it said was based on a year of undercover reporting, revealed that some of fast food giants suppliers had put excessive amounts of antibiotics, hormones and antiviral drugs in chicken feed to make the birds gain weight faster. The allegations:

  • Chinese chicken suppliers had injected illegal antiviral drugs and growth hormones in its poultry – right up until they were slaughtered;
  • Chicken farmers have given their chickens excessive amounts of antiviral drugs, including Amantadine and Ribavirin, “to make them survive in overcrowded chicken houses”.
  • The chickens were then supplied to KFC and McDonalds, without any kind of quality checks;
  • They issued quarantine qualifications without doing any tests;
  • A farmer said he would also mix a hormone into the feed and the birds would become “so fat that some could not even walk”;
  • Poultry farmers told reporters that their chickens might die within two days in crowded chicken houses if they were not given antibiotics;
  • Farmers had given at least 18 kinds of antibiotics to chickens “so that they would not become ill”;
  • Another farmer said they had to change antibiotics from time to time, “after the chickens developed resistance to the drugs”;
  • They found that chicken farms had lights turned on around the clock to make the birds eat non-stop and grow faster, with a chicken growing from 30 grams to 3.5kg in just 40 days;
  • They faked feeding logs for chicken farms.

Tiny hearts

The owner of one of the farms told CCTV that the chickens have always been in inferior health because they have to reach full growth in about 40 days. “Their hearts, as small as the tip of the little finger, wear out from the speed,” he said. The chickens are fed large doses of antibiotics all the time, the manager said, because cutting it off would kill them immediately. China’s poultry raising regulations state that chickens may not be given drugs within one week of being slaughtered. However, he said, chickens are continually fed antibiotics because many Chinese farmers don’t have the money or want to spend the money to raise chickens in larger and cleaner pens.

Prohibited drugs

Under provisions of the American Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA) and 21 CFR part 530, FDA has prohibited the extra-label use of all human antiviral drugs in poultry because the FDA has determined that the use of the drug class presents a public health risk. Specifically, both drugs, the report said, are being used in poultry feed, Amantadine and Ribavirin, are drugs that are prohibited for use in food animals.


Amantadine was originally used as an antiviral medication against influenza. Now, it is mainly used in combination with pain relievers to improve their effects. Currently, Amantadine is no longer recommended for treatment of influenza A infection. The United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that many strains of influenza are now resistant to this drug.


Ribavirin is used with an interferon medication to treat hepatitis C in people, for which it is the only FDA-approved use for. It has never  Significant teratogenic and/or embryocidal effects have been demonstrated in all animal species exposed to Ribavirin. Thus, Ribavirin remains a reproductive hazard.

Antiviral drugs

Currently, in the U.S. there are no drugs approved for the treatment or prevention of influenza A in animals. FDA prohibits the use of antiviral drugs in poultry to help keep drugs effective for humans. Specifically, the order prohibits the off-label use of two classes of antiviral drugs adamantanes and neuraminidase inhibitors in chickens, turkeys, and ducks because their use presents a risk to public health. The agency has taken these measures to help preserve the effectiveness of these drugs for treating or preventing influenza infections in humans.

Avian influenza

The FDA antiviral drug ban in agriculture was prompted by a statement from the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Animal Health Organization, that warned that the off-label use of these drugs in poultry could lead to the emergence of resistant strains of type A influenza, and urged their Member States not to use antivirals in animals in order to preserve their efficacy for human use in the case of an influenza pandemic.

Influenza pandemic

Because the FDA is concerned with the ease with which influenza viruses mutate frequently, the illegal use of anti-influenza drugs could allow resistant influenza viruses to flourish. If influenza A viruses, which can infect humans, became resistant to the drugs currently available to treat them, the result would be a clear threat to human health. This is of particular concern if the avian influenza H5N1 that has been identified in China were to emerge in the U.S.

Food safety jitters

China has struggled to rein in health violations in the unruly and vast food sector despite harsh punishments and repeated vows to deal with the problem. Officials in China say they have started to inspect all chicken farms, animal feed and medicine companies and meat processing companies in the city. However, some critics maintain that maintaining uniformly high standards of food safety in China is impossible given the highly fragmented nature of the country’s agricultural system and a confusing set of regulations that make it easier for regulators to pursue large companies rather than address the root causes of low food-safety standards.

Final thoughts

Because of the significant economic and public health implications of an avian influenza pandemic would cause throughout the world, these allegations are a reminder of the problems of food safety particularly because avian influenza is endemic in China, as well as the scrutiny foreign companies often face there. Every U.S. company doing business in China has a duty and a responsibility, both legally and morally, to assure that the manufacturing standards they rely on in China are equivalent to those in the U.S. and that the products they import into this country are safe.



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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, the author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and consumer advisor. Help support her work by making a donation today.

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