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McDonald's Decision on Antibiotic Use Expected to Have Worldwide Impact - 2003-07-15


Fast food giant McDonald's is calling on its suppliers worldwide to phase out certain uses of antibiotics in their animals. The new policy discourages the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster. The McDonald's Corporation is responding to concern among scientists that using these drugs to help animals grow is making them less effective in treating human disease.

It's common for commercial livestock farmers in the United States to feed their animals small but steady doses of antibiotics. "For reasons that aren't fully understood, low doses of antibiotics given continuously in animal feed seem to make many animals grow a bit faster," explained Senior scientist Rebecca Goldburg, at the advocacy group Environmental Defense. "And so antibiotics are used in this context purely for economic reasons, not for the, anything to do with the health of the animal." But many scientists are concerned about this practice of using a vital public health tool for purely economic reasons . Over long periods of low-level exposure, bacteria can develop ways to survive the effects of the antibiotics. That could rob the drugs of their power to fight disease, scientists say. After prodding from Environmental Defense, McDonald's decided to tell its suppliers to make some changes.

The companies that supply McDonald's with the more than one billion kilograms of meat a year destined to become hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, and other products will soon have some new requirements to comply with. Those requirements are designed to phase out antibiotics used as growth-promoters by McDonald's suppliers in the next year and a half. The company declined to comment on their decision. But according to Rebecca Goldburg of Environmental Defense, it was important for a big name like McDonald's to take the lead.

"McDonald's is one of the world's largest buyers of meat and poultry products," she said. "And thus McDonald's has tremendous pull in the marketplace. Companies are interested in supplying McDonald's with meat and poultry products for good financial reasons."

Tyson Foods supplies McDonald's with chicken. Company spokesman Ed Nicholson points out that the company has already stopped using antibiotics as growth promoters, so it already meets McDonald's new policy. He says that in the late-1990s Tyson realized that it would be a good idea to cut back on using growth-promoting antibiotics.

"We realized that because antibiotics are an important tool for us. And insuring their sustainability is important for us," he said. "We want them there, to work for veterinary use as we do for human use."

Mr. Nicholson went on to say that Tyson has found that good animal husbandry practices produce the same effects as growth-promoting antibiotics. So cutting them out will not hurt the company's bottom line.

Other suppliers are not so comfortable with McDonald's new policy. Paul Sundberg, a veterinarian with the National Pork Board, which represents the U.S. pork industry, points to the experience in Denmark when that country's pork producers cut the use of growth-promoting antibiotics, beginning in the 1990s.

"The uses of antibiotics at some times, rather than just causing animals to grow, prevented diseases in the animals," he said. "And they found that when they took those antibiotics away, that there was an increase in illness, an increase in death. That was an unintended consequence."

According to Mr. Sundberg, another unintended consequence was that Danish pork producers increased their use of antibiotics to treat the diseases that growth-promoting antibiotics had prevented. But studies show farm antibiotic use, in fact, is down overall in Denmark. Health experts generally consider the Danish experience a good one.

Mr. Sundberg notes that some pork producers may be reluctant to supply McDonald's because it will be more expensive to comply with its antibiotics policy. "It it will be up to McDonald's now to give the economic incentives to help pork producers to supply their market," he said.

Stephen DeVincent, who directs the ecology program at the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, a research and advocacy group, agrees that satisfying McDonald's new requirements will pose new challenges for producers.

"Removing those antibiotics, there will be consequences to the health of the animal. And then you have to think about, if the animal's unhealthy, then you're getting unhealthy animals to the food supply and food safety, and then public health goes from that," he said. "So it's not, in my mind, so simple."

Mr. DeVincent adds that, although alternatives will have to be found to safeguard public health, McDonald's antibiotic policy is a positive step. He says it's more important to preserve antibiotics for treating human disease. Experts say other fast food companies are likely to follow McDonald's lead. Their financial pull is likely to drive changes across the livestock industry. McDonald's alone has 30,000 restaurants in 118 countries. And since the company gets many of its products from local or regional suppliers, the new policy could have an impact on farm uses of antibiotics worldwide.