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
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
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.
This commentary appeared in the San Francisco
Chronicle on July 14, 2003.
Inside the Chicken Industry
In the Spring issue of PoultryPress (www.upc-online.org)
we ran Virgil Butler’s testimony describing his employment
at a Tyson chicken slaughterhouse from 1997 to 2002. Mr. Butler
wrote the following letter to the San Francisco Chronicle
in response to Karen Davis’s commentary on the McDonald’s
Will the McDonald’s policy cure cruelty to chickens?
I don’t believe so. I worked at a Tyson chicken slaughter
plant in Grannis, AR (a supplier for McDonald’s, KFC, etc.)
for a number of years and a few other plants as well. I caught
chickens from the houses as a teenager before that. I am intimately
familiar with the poultry business and the living conditions of
I have seen the filth, death, and disease that breed from these
conditions as well as the outright abuse the chickens endure from
the workers. What I have seen is bad enough that my wife and I
no longer eat chicken.
I have seen the chickens blinded by the ammonia fumes that build
up in the houses. I have had the ammonia burns on my arms from
handling the chickens that were coated with ammonia. My exposure
lasted only for a night’s work before I could wash it off.
The chickens had to live that way.
I’ve seen chickens starve in the houses because their feet
were stuck in the muck. I’ve seen the catchers stomp, kick,
and slam chickens on the ground. I’ve seen them “cull
the runts” by pulling their heads off. I’ve seen all
the roosters of a breeder house be killed by having their heads
bashed by a metal pipe, since they were too big for our plant
to hang, unlike the spent hens. These spent breeder chickens don’t
go to McDonald’s directly, but they are a by-product of
the industry. These chickens are fed to other chickens as well
as to your pet dog.
What about all the chickens that don’t live long enough
to make it to the slaughter plant because they have died of disease
or been killed by cruelty? Technically McDonald’s would
be able to say that their chickens didn’t suffer the cruelty
that killed these chickens. They are wrong. Their chickens suffered
the same conditions and risks, but were unfortunate enough to
survive long enough (a couple of months) to have to suffer the
final cruelty of all, the slaughter.
At the slaughter plant I’ve seen birds scalded alive, pulled
apart, and blown up with dry ice bombs for laughs. I’ve
seen them run over by forklifts. These issues have nothing to
do with antibiotics.
These points don’t list anywhere near the routine cruelty
I have seen through the years, but they would not be addressed
by McDonald’s in this new policy. This new policy might
ban antibiotics used as growth-enhancers, but as long as farmers
raise the birds in the conditions they do, they will have to give
the birds antibiotics just to keep them alive.
Eat vegan AND urge the chicken industry to set specific
welfare standards eliminating the crowding, poor hygiene, forced
rapid growth, and worker abuse of chickens. Request a written
George Watts, President
National Chicken Council
1015 15th Street, NW, Suite 930
Washington DC 20005-2605