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McDonald's will tell meat suppliers to cut antibiotics use on concerns about drug-resistant germs

(Thursday, June 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Marc Kaufman, Washington Post: In response to increasingly dire warnings that widespread use of antibiotics on U.S. farms is making the drugs less effective for treating people, the fast-food chain McDonald's is directing some meat suppliers to stop using antibiotic growth promoters altogether and encouraging others to cut back.

The policy being announced today, the broadest in the United States, focuses on the use of antibiotics in animal feed to speed the development of livestock -- a practice widely seen by researchers as the least important and most expendable use of important antibiotics.

Because McDonald's is the nation's largest purchaser of beef and among the largest for chicken and pork, its action will noticeably reduce the amount of antibiotics being used as growth promoters. Beyond that, consumer and public health advocates as well as McDonald's executives said they hope the announcement will mark a turning point in the way U.S. farmers raise animals.

"This is a highly significant policy and change," said Rebecca Goldburg of Environmental Defense, an advocacy group that participated in McDonald's review of its practices. "This policy is global and it goes beyond anything we have seen from other companies."

Linda Tollefson, deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, who also reviewed McDonald's proposal, said: "When a very large and international company does something like this, it's an important step. They will set the tone in the marketplace."

According to the Animal Health Institute, which represents manufacturers of drugs for animal use, almost 22 million pounds of antibiotics were used on farms in 2001. That group estimates that 13 percent to 17 percent of that total is for growth promotion, but the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, has said its research shows that more than 50 percent of the total could be considered growth promotion.

The McDonald's policy will prohibit its direct suppliers, which mainly provide chicken, from using 24 growth promoters that are closely related to antibiotics used in human medicine. The firm, in deciding which independent farmers will supply its beef, chicken and pork, will consider it a "favorable factor" if the supplier avoids growth promoters.

The policy will be effective worldwide by the end of 2004 and will require suppliers to keep records and submit to regular audits. Public health and FDA officials said the audits will make the program considerably stronger than others announced by fast-food competitors and chicken producers in recent years.

Overuse of antibiotics on farms and to treat human ailments has made some old-line antibiotics such as penicillin and tetracycline much less effective than they once were. Concern that the life cycle of newer antibiotics called fluoroquinolones would be similarly cut short has spurred doctors and public health officials to action.

The use of small but regular amounts of antibiotics in animal feed -- which helps the animals grow quickly -- inevitably leads bacteria in the animals to evolve into forms that are immune to the antibiotics' effects. Those resistant bacteria can be transferred to people, who will not be helped by related antibiotics they might need should they become sick.

Efforts to reduce antibiotic use have focused on growth promoters because speeding the growth of farm animals is not considered a high-priority use. The European Union voted to ban the practice in 1998.

The FDA has also sought to reduce overuse of antibiotics, but the effort has had little effect on U.S. farms. An FDA effort to ban an animal antibiotic called Baytril, a fluoroquinolone related to the human antibiotic Cipro, triggered a lengthy regulatory appeals process by Bayer Corp.

Participants in the McDonald's effort offered their model as a way to make progress.

"They brought together all the stakeholders and looked at the science and came up with a policy that will encourage the sustainable use of antibiotics on the farm," said Dennis Erpelding, manager for corporate affairs of Elanco Animal Health, one of the five largest producers of drugs for animals.

The McDonald's policy accepts the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals and to prevent and control disease outbreaks on farms. Some activists have said that could allow farmers to continue using growth promoters, which do not require a prescription, under the pretext of disease control and prevention.

Overall antibiotic use on European farms has dropped considerably since a ban on growth promoters began to be phased in there, and resistance to antibiotics has declined. But reports show antibiotics are being used more frequently to treat sick animals.

The Animal Health Institute, in a statement by Vice President Ron Phillips, said there is no scientific basis for the McDonald's policy. "Europe, as the result of a non-science based policy, has removed the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, and as a result has sparked a dramatic increase in animal disease and the use of antibiotics to treat that disease," he said.

McDonald's has been an industry leader on issues such as animal welfare and recycling after coming under concerted public pressure.

"We would love to be a catalyst for change industry-wide on antibiotic use," said Robert Langert, McDonald's senior director for social responsibility. "People have been arguing about this all night and day, but now we're taking some practical steps and expect we'll make some real progress."

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A11152-2003Jun18.html?nav=hptoc_b