McMedicine

You may have heard the news last week that McDonald’s Corporation has told its meat suppliers to discontinue the use of antibiotics in animals.

On the surface, this new policy sounds like good news – especially given the fact that McDonald’s is one of the largest meat purchasers in the U.S. And while I’m very happy to see McDonald’s taking a step in the right direction, when you examine the details, this directive doesn’t have very sharp teeth.

Which is too bad, because what we need right now is genuinely persuasive action on the part of major meat buyers like McDonald’s.

No guarantees

Let’s start by getting the glaring weaknesses out of the way.

First of all, this new policy won’t even be in effect until 2005. Okay – better late than never – but the policy only applies to McDonald’s direct suppliers. Indirect suppliers will be “encouraged” to follow the new guidelines. And guess what those indirect suppliers provide? All of McDonald’s beef and pork. (Direct suppliers provide about 70 percent of the poultry McDonald’s buys.)

Apparently incentives will be offered to help encourage indirect suppliers to comply with the policy, but just how effective these incentives and encouragement might turn out to be is anybody’s guess. In other words, let’s not jump to the conclusion that McDonald’s meat is going to be anything close to antibiotic-free.

A non-profit organization called Environmental Defense was instrumental in coaxing McDonald’s to establish the new antibiotic policy and hopefully that association will extend to help implement the plan when it goes into effect. But if McDonald’s is lax in enforcing this new policy, and if other restaurant and grocery chains don’t step up and demand meat from animals that have not been loaded with antibiotics, the repercussions in human resistance to antibiotics could create major health problems in years to come.

Worst-case scenarios

As I told you in the e-Alert “Got Antibiotics?” (5/8/02), besides being used to treat sick animals, antibiotics are routinely used to make livestock and poultry grow faster and larger. This has led to an overuse of antibiotics in farm animals that may play a significant role in the development of human antibiotic resistance. And if that doesn’t sound scary enough, consider this: approximately 80 percent of the total antibiotic production in the U.S. is used in agriculture.

And it gets even scarier. Because a study out of the University of Maryland last year supported the theory that agricultural antibiotic use may be introducing new antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria into the human population – while at the same time making antibiotics less effective in fighting disease.

The study evaluated the medical impact of simultaneously using the same antibiotics in livestock animals as is used in medicine for humans. With mathematical models, the scientists calculated the average human’s every day exposure to animal bacteria, along with bacteria’s rate of transmission. Their conclusion: by the time an antibiotic-resistant bacteria infection could be detected in humans, its course would be irreversible.

Sources in your neighborhood

McDonald’s new policy will provide at least some benefit for McDonald’s customers, but what if you never step foot in McDonald’s – are there steps you can take to insure that the chicken, beef, and pork you eat don’t come with a side order of antibiotics? There are. But to get started, a little research will be in order.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy provides an exhaustive online list of grocery retailers and restaurants in the U.S. that do not use or sell meat that’s been treated with antibiotics. By searching for entries in your state you can also find local meat producers that forego antibiotics. (See “IATP’s Guide for Meat Raised Without Antibiotics” at: iatp.org.)

When searching this list you’ll find many individual restaurants, but among them, a few national chains stand out: Chipotle doesn’t serve pork raised with antibiotics, and T.G.I. Fridays hasn’t served antibiotic beef since 2001. There’s another chain on the east coast that isn’t quite as common to the landscape as those two but it’s cropping up in more places: Chicken Out serves only hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken and turkey.

So while McDonald’s is not exactly the leader its press release makes it out to be, the new policy might at least prompt other restaurants, fast food chains, and grocery stores to follow suit.

If nothing else, the attention this announcement received in the mainstream media will help make the public more aware that antibiotic resistance in humans is a serious problem, ticking away like a time bomb. Hopefully it will be diffused by the responsible actions of meat producers and consumers before it’s too late.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

Sources:
“McDonald’s: Reduce Antibiotics in Animals” Dave Carpenter, Associated Press, 6/19/03, ap.org
“McDonald’s Calls for Phase-Out of Growth Promoting Antibiotics in Meat Supply, Establishes Global Policy on Antibiotic Use” McDonald’s Corporate Press Release, 6/19/03, mcdonalds.com
“McDonald’s Says No More Playing Chicken with Antibiotics” Environmental Defense, press release, 6/17/03
“Eat Well, Eat Antibiotic-Free” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, iatp.org
“Antibiotic-Free Meats Are New Health Trend in Food Service” Keep Antibiotics Working, press release, 11/13/01, keepantibioticsworking.com