Researchers at the Al Ain University in the United Arabic Emirates (UAE) are testing the use of date pits to replace antibiotics administered to chickens. The idea is so promising that the university is patenting the concept.
According to Ahmed Soliman Hussein, professor of poultry nutrition at UAE University, date pits have significant ability to protect poultry against common bacterial diseases.
As a raw material pits are cheap, since the UAE's date industry generates 50,000 tonnes of pits annually as byproducts of processing.
The animal industry is quite keen to phase out antibiotics if equal effective alternatives are available. Europe has already banned preventative use of antibiotics and in the US the government is urged to do the same.
Still high use
But the global poultry industry still uses an estimated 11,000 tonnes of antibiotics a year, according to Prof Hussein. "People are very worried about how many antibiotics we get from consuming animal feeds," he said.
“The UAE is one of the top five date-producing countries in the world, and pits that are not discarded are often sold by processing factories to farmers at "almost no cost," said Prof Hussein. They are fed to camels and cows.
For chicken producers, date pits make an attractive alternative to yellow corn, the main ingredient in poultry feed.
The UAE University researchers calculate that pits could be used to replace up to 20% the corn in chicken feed. That would cut both costs and the use of growth-enhancing drugs.
The university is in the process of patenting its findings in the Emirates and in the US. Once that has been done, Prof Hussein says he will publish his study in academic journals.
"First we'll patent it in the UAE, then begin looking to the Gulf Cooperating Countries as a market," he said.
Despite the benefits it may be hard work to convince farms to swap their feed. They doubt if it will work in practice. Poultry farm managers Aref Mohamed Azazy: "It might work in the labs, but putting findings to use in the field is something different" he said, adding that even antibiotics worked differently on the farm than in the lab.
In the UAE, managing poultry health can be tricky. Only a handful of farms breed their own animals; most import fertilised eggs from elsewhere. And if a company for whatever reason cannot supply broiler chickens, supermarket shelves stay empty.
On Tuesday, the country's biggest poultry provider, Al Rawdha Poultry, said that part of the reason it had recently struggled to maintain egg and chicken meat supplies was a single unhealthy batch of breeding stock. The result has been 30,000 fewer fresh birds a day on supermarket shelves.