Plant-derived food additive touted as replacement for overuse of antibiotics

caged chickens look like they want to know more about a new food additive that could replace overused antibiotics
CC BY-SA 2.0 Michael Coghlan

With rising occurrence of antibiotic resistant bacteria as an unintended consequence of adding low-level antibiotic additives to feed, especially in factory farming environments, pressure is building on farmers to discontinue using drugs except for the treatment of sick animals.

A Canadian company claims to have the answer. Ottawa-based Avivagen has patented and trademarked a product they are calling OxC-beta™, which is derived from beta-carotene, a molecule named for giving carrots their color. Beta-carotene's health effects primarily stem from delivery of vitamin A, which forms as the molecule breaks down after it is eaten.

But beta-carotene spontaneously picks up oxygen from the air, to form new molecules. These beta-carotene oxidation products have prompted study, as there seem to be potential beneficial effects related to them.

Avivagen has taken this natural process to the extreme: they bubble oxygen through the beta-carotene to make their OxC-beta™, forcing the "total oxidation" of the beta-carotene. This total oxidation product forms a polymer, which is a larger molecule linking together the smaller beta-carotene molecules.

The company has sponsored research showing that

"OxC-beta™ at 2, 4 or 6 parts-per-million rate of inclusion (in chicken feed) matched the protection provided by the antibiotics bacitracin and virginiamycin."

Additional studies suggest the product is effective for swine and cattle as well as chickens.

A paper published in peer-reviewed journal Plos One indicates that the mechanism of action relates to activating the immune system, an effect which may be related to the fact that the OxC-beta™ resembles a chemical found in spores and pollen. But it also puts the lie to the marketing implications that this is a natural product: this is the product of chemical reactions modifying a natural chemical, which sort of knocks it off the "natural" list.

But even if it is not natural, it may be better than using (abusing) antibiotics. That requires further study. There are some "dark sides" to derivatives of beta-carotene, and anything that will be added to foods in the human food chain deserves more than cursory study before it achieves widespread use. For example, what are the possible outcomes of adding a chemical similar to a known allergen in the food chain of an increasingly allergic population?

So is this worth crowing about? The slick marketing machine behind the product puts our radar on high alert: as yet, the only one crowing about the product seems to be the company itself. But Avivagen appears to know what they are doing, forming partnerships and running a full court press on the factory farming in Asia. According to CEO Cameron Groome "Avivagen is currently working to register OxC-beta™ in six important Asian markets – China, Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam."

We hope some independent scientists are pursuing the question of whether the science that employees and shareholders of Avivagen have produced holds up, and to press the questions of what unintended consequences a new food additive might carry with it.

Tags: Antibiotics | Biomimicry | Factory Farming

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