The McDonald's Corporation has announced that by the end of 2004 it will prohibit its direct suppliers of meat from giving healthy animals antibiotics to promote growth. Because McDonald's purchases 2.5 billion pounds of beef, chicken, and pork a year, its new policy could have a significant impact on meat production worldwide.
McDonald's decision is a response to growing concern about the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, which many believe has led to an increase in drug- resistant disease. According to the Animal Health Institute (AHI), which represents pharmaceutical companies, nearly 22 million pounds of antibiotics were used on U.S. farms in 2001. AHI estimates that between 13 and 17 percent of those antibiotics were administered to healthy animals, while the Union of Concerned Scientists puts that number closer to 50 percent.
In addition to requiring the new policy of its direct suppliers, McDonald's will offer incentives to encourage its indirect suppliers, who provide most of its beef and pork, to reduce their antibiotic use as well.
The implications of McDonald's new policy are unclear. When Sweden banned the use of growth-promoting antibiotics in 1986, there was an increase in disease among livestock and a corresponding rise in the use of drugs to treat sick animals. Only after Swedish farmers improved their animals' living conditions did disease rates begin to fall to pre-ban levels. When the European Union adopted a similar ban in 1998, European farmers likewise experienced a spike in disease rates and are now adopting healthier husbandry practices.