Natural Foods Merchandiser

McDonald's Market Clout Enters Antibiotics Debate

McDonald's Corp.'s decision to stop buying meat from producers who feed their animals growth-promoting antibiotics is expected to change how animals are raised around the world. And that has some meat industry groups worried.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council joined eight other groups in endorsing the Coalition for Animal Health's condemnation of McDonald's actions.

McDonald's Global Policy on Antibiotics, announced in June, requires direct suppliers—mostly chicken producers—to stop using 24 growth-promoting antibiotics that are used in human medicine. The company encourages its independent or indirect suppliers—meat and pork producers—to do the same.

By the end of 2004, McDonald's will require all its worldwide suppliers to provide records showing when they administer antibiotics to their animals. McDonald's direct suppliers can only use antibiotics for short periods of time to treat diseased animals or prevent disease in herds or flocks, and a licensed veterinarian must supervise all use.

"McDonald's is asking producers that supply over 2.5 billion pounds of chicken, beef and pork annually to take actions that will ultimately help protect public health," said Frank Muschetto, the hamburger chain's senior vice president of worldwide supply chain management.

Supporters and detractors alike say that simply by the sheer volume of the meat it buys, McDonald's could eradicate growth-promoting antibiotic use in animals. Environmental Defense, a nonprofit group that worked with McDonald's on the antibiotics policy, estimates that healthy farm animals consume more than 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States.

McDonald's antibiotics policy was enacted under the company's new Corporate Social Responsibility program. Other actions include:

  • Creating the McDonald's Animal Welfare Council, made up of academic and animal protection experts

  • Forming an International Scientific Advisory Council to help prevent mad cow disease
The McDonald's decision echoes legislation introduced in May 2002 by U.S. Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and John Reed, D-R.I. That bill, which is still pending in committee, seeks to preserve antibiotics' effectiveness by restricting their addition to animal feed. The bill cites a report from a federal interagency task force stating the more antibiotics a person ingests, whether directly or by eating an animal fed antibiotics, the less effective those antibiotics become. It also notes that in June 2001, the American Medical Association adopted a resolution opposing nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animals.

But Ron Phillips, vice president for public affairs at the Coalition for Animal Health, argues that antibiotics added to animal feed already undergo safety tests by the Food and Drug Administration. "There is no scientific-based case for what McDonald's is doing," he said. Studies show small amounts of antibiotics added to animal feed not only help animals grow, they keep them healthy, he said.

According to a 2003 Iowa State University study, the 1998 European Union ban on growth-promoting antibiotics in animal feed has resulted in more sick pigs in Denmark, particularly at the weaning stage, and an increase in the amount of antibiotics used to treat those animals. The researchers estimate that a U.S. ban on growth-promoting antibiotics in hog feed would result in an extra $4.50 per pig per year in disease treatment costs. In 10 years, that adds up to $700 million, the researchers concluded.

The pork industry currently has a quality assurance program that calls for "judicious use of antibiotics when they provide demonstrable benefits," said Pork Board spokeswoman Cindy Cunningham.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has recommended that beef producers avoid antibiotics for growth promotion, so the association is comfortable with McDonald's ban, said spokeswoman Kim Essex. However, the association echoes the Coalition for Animal Health's concerns that the McDonald's decision is more market-driven than science-driven. "Prohibiting the use of FDA-approved products in the absence of a science- and risk-based analysis can have unintended negative consequences for animal health and well-being, and for human health," Essex said.

McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa Howard said a McDonald's Antibiotics Coalition, including Thomas O'Brien, M.D., of Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Oxford University animal welfare expert Marian Dawkins, DVM, reviewed scientific studies for 18 months before coming up with the antibiotics policy.

Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 8/p. 1, 12

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