United Poultry Concerns July 14, 2003

Human Health and Animal Welfare
Will the McDonald’s policy cure cruelty to chickens?

Today’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle (www.sfchronicle.com) has 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 letters@sfchronicle.com. Or fax: 415-543-7708.

Human Health and Animal Welfare
Will the McDonald’s policy cure cruelty to chickens?

Karen Davis

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.
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Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

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