Today’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle
an article by UPC President Karen Davis on “Human Health and
Animal Welfare: Will the McDonald’s policy cure cruelty to
chickens?” Readers are encouraged to send letters to the editor,
preferably by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or fax: 415-543-7708.
Human Health and Animal Welfare
Will the McDonald’s policy cure cruelty to chickens?
On June 19, 2003, the McDonald’s Corp. announced a ban on
the use of growth-promoting antibiotics in chickens raised for the
company’s 30,000 restaurants worldwide. The policy, to be
fully implemented by the end of 2004, requires suppliers to eliminate
feeding antibiotics used in human medicine to chickens to make them
grow abnormally fast and large.
McDonald’s is promoting the policy as part of its overall
commitment to social responsibility and animal welfare. In 2000,
McDonald’s became the first U.S. food company to impose minimum
welfare standards on its egg suppliers when it announced suppliers
must stop withholding food from hens to manipulate egg production
(a practice known as “forced molting”), increase the
amount of cage space for each hen from 48 to 72 square inches, and
phase out debeaking.
The move signaled acknowledgement that many farming practices are
not only inhumane, but are also responsible for a growing number
of health risks affecting both animals raised for food and consumers
and handlers of animal products. For example, force-molting hens
damages their immune systems so severely as to invite Salmonella
enteritidis infection of their ovaries and their eggs.
Banning the growth-promoting use of antibiotics is further acknowledgement
that the way chickens are raised—crowded and confined by the
thousands in filthy, ammonia-filled houses and fed unwholesome products
(everything from used restaurant grease and diseased carcasses to
manure) laced with antibiotics--predisposes them to infections that
can be passed on to humans, often with long-lasting and even fatal
effects. This fact was underscored as early as 1964 at a conference
on salmonella, already identified as a health problem linked to
the intensive confinement of chickens.
Since then, salmonella has evolved new, more virulent strains in
response to antibiotic overuse, as has the intestinal bacterium
campylobacter, which infests poultry houses and clings to the birds
so effectively that between 42 and 95 percent of chickens sampled
in supermarkets in 2002 were reported infected, according to studies
conducted by Consumer Reports and the Sierra Club. The Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention conservatively estimates that each
year in the United States, between 200 and 800 people die of campylobacter
infections and 2 million to 8 million people are sickened by them.
The McDonald’s decision comes in the wake of evidence that
the antibiotic that has been most effective in treating salmonella
and campylobacter infections in humans, and respiratory infections
in birds, is losing its effectiveness. The antibiotic (named Cipro
for humans and Baytril for animals) is in the class of anti-microbials
known as fluoroquinolones. Since 1995, when the Food and Drug Administration
licensed fluoroquinolones for use in chickens against the advice
of the CDC, antibiotic-resistant campylobacter levels have soared,
all the more disturbingly given that campylobacter is the presumed
cause of the potentially fatal nerve-damage disease, Guillain-Barre
syndrome, which sickens about 5,000 people a year in the United
States and usually requires patients to stay on a respirator in
the intensive care unit.
It is important to understand that McDonald’s is banning
only one antibiotic use—growth promotion. The ban does not
include the medicinal use of antibiotics in chickens raised for
the company. Partly for this reason, and because antibiotics used
for growth-promotion are typically the same as or similar to those
used for disease control in the poultry houses, it is unclear how
effective the ban will be in reducing antibiotic-resistant bacteria
or improving animal welfare.
Already, the poultry industry is developing products and techniques
to ensure that, with or without antibiotics, chickens and turkeys
will continue to grow to even more pathological weights in shorter
time periods on less food.
One such product deactivates the protein, myostatin, which prevents
birds’ muscles from overdeveloping. Many genetic engineering
projects are underway to make birds grow into mountains of “meat”
without any concern for their suffering or for animal welfare.
The McDonald’s ban is in lieu of U.S. government oversight
of antibiotic use in farmed animals. U.S. producers are not required
to report how much or which antibiotics they use, and most of these
antibiotics are available without a prescription. By contrast, McDonald’s
is requiring suppliers to keep accurate records for audits demonstrating
compliance with the company’s policy.
It remains to be seen what effect, if any, the McDonald’s
policy will have on the health of consumers and the welfare of chickens
and other farmed animals. Most important, McDonald’s should
extend its commitment to animal welfare by requiring suppliers to
eliminate the crowding, poor hygiene and forced rapid growth that
necessitate the overuse of antibiotics to control the diseases that
multiply under these conditions. If living conditions were less
stressful and more humane, fewer medicinal antibiotics would be
needed and the overall use of antibiotics, not only those used as
growth promoters, should decline and be easier to monitor.
Karen Davis is president of United Poultry Concerns (www.upc-online.org),
a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful
treatment of domestic fowl.
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150