NO MORE PLAYING CHICKEN
Long used to McDonald's ubiquitous golden arches in the U.S., Americans can now count on getting a Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets just about anywhere in the world, from Bangkok and Buenos Aires, to Bahrain and beyond. So it was no small potatoes when recently the world's largest restaurant chain announced a new purchasing policy that will impact the way its meat suppliers use antibiotics to raise animals worldwide.
Spurred by Environmental Defense and mounting public concern over the dangers of antibiotic overuse, the food giant laid out a new set of standards that build on its past steps to curb drug use in animals raised for food. Our Alliance and Health staff played a key role in helping McDonald's shape its new policy, working with a diverse coalition of organizations that had a considerable stake in the process (including drug manufacturers, academic scientists and members of the medical community). "We are delighted that McDonald's isn't chicken about reducing antibiotic use," says Environmental Defense senior scientist Dr. Rebecca Goldburg, an expert on antibiotic resistance.
A major prong of the new policy restricts the use of antibiotics important in human medicine as growth promoters for animals. An outright ban on this type of antibiotic use applies to all the restaurant chain's direct meat suppliers (largely poultry producers like Tyson Foods). They have until 2004 to comply. Administering antibiotics to promote growth generally involves adding low dosages of antibiotics to the feed or water of healthy animals to speed weight gain (as opposed to treating sick animals or animals at risk of disease in a sick flock or herd). "These antibiotics are often used to compensate for the crowded, stressful conditions that are found on many large animal-production facilities," says Goldburg.
Although McDonald's is aiming its policy particularly at direct suppliers, it holds out a carrot to its indirect suppliers (mainly beef and pork producers), giving them a purchasing preference if they comply with the new rules and cut back their use of antibiotics in cattle and pig production. The policy is bound to have a ripple effect among other restaurants and meat buyers, given the sizable chunk of the food and restaurant market that McDonald's holds globally.
"One of the reasons we are excited about McDonald's new policy," says Gwen Ruta, Director of Environmental Alliances at Environmental Defense, "is that McDonald's, as the largest meat purchaser in the fast-food industry, wields enormous influence within the supply chain." The new rules will affect the meat produced for the company's 30,000 restaurants in 118 countries.
"Antibiotics are very heavily used in many developing countries where they are loosely regulated," comments Goldburg. "The new policy could have a significant impact on the production of meat for McDonald's in developing countries because suppliers for McDonald's in those countries will have to reduce their use of antibiotics."
Last year, McDonald's announced that they had stopped buying poultry treated with fluoroquinolones, a class of antibiotics (including Cipro) that are critical for treating infections in humans. The European Union is already in the process of phasing out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animals.
"We would like other chain restaurants, grocery stores and food service companies to adopt similar policies to reduce antibiotic use," says Ruta. "McDonald's has opened the door for other buyers - especially those who are buying meat from the same suppliers - and has shown that reducing antibiotics is both feasible and affordable. We call on other meat purchasers to adopt similar policies."
The Growing Menace of Antibiotic Resistance
So what exactly is the problem with antibiotics in our meat supply? For years, Environmental Defense has echoed many doctors and scientists in the health field who have called attention to the dangers of overusing and misusing antibiotics in human medicine and in animal agriculture.
By one estimate, some 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are fed to healthy pigs, poultry and beef cattle. The American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization all have taken positions opposing the use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals and have taken steps to address the problem in human medicine.
In 2001, we released a warning that many of the "wonder drugs" doctors use to treat such life-threatening infections as staph (Staphylococcus) and Salmonella food poisoning are increasingly losing their effectiveness to quell these bacteria.
The Golden Overarching Principle
Other fast food companies have said that their poultry suppliers have cut down on antibiotic use, but while that is welcome news, McDonald's policy goes further. "McDonald's policy imposes mandatory reductions on their suppliers by requiring written certification, record-keeping and regular audits, and by addressing for the first time antibiotic usage in pork and beef production," says Ruta. The hope is that McDonald's new policy will cut antibiotic use in animal agriculture and lead to more responsible antibiotic use across the board.
Written by: Environmental Defense
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