CHICAGO -- Responding to rising concerns about the heavy use of antibiotics to develop livestock, McDonald's Corp. is placing some restrictions on its suppliers that advocacy groups say could help curb worldwide use of the drugs.
The fast-food giant announced a new policy Thursday on the use of antibiotics in food animals after a year of consultations with environmental, science and consumer groups that have pushed for cutbacks.
The concern is that feeding antibiotics to chickens, cows and pigs so they'll grow bigger and more rapidly weakens the effect of antibiotics used in human medicine.
Under the four-page policy, McDonald's is telling its direct suppliers - which provide most of its poultry and 20 percent of all its meat - to phase out the use of antibiotics that promote growth in animals by the end of 2004. They will be asked to submit annual certifications testifying they are complying and face periodic audits.
Indirect suppliers, those providing beef and pork, also are being encouraged to stop the practice or risk losing business clout with one of the world's largest meat buyers. McDonald's said those seeking preferred status will have to certify compliance and maintain records of their antibiotic use.
The new policy does not prohibit the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals.
"McDonald's recognizes that the use of antibiotics in food animals is under active review by scientists and regulators around the world, and we support these transparent, science-based processes," the policy says. "We also recognize the importance of combating antibiotic resistance and believe that voluntary, market-based actions can complement ongoing activities to address the issue."
McDonald's officials said they think the actions they are encouraging their producers to take will ultimately help protect public health.
"We're trying to take practical steps that are science-based and can help with an important issue related to antibiotics resistance with human beings," said Bob Langert, the company's senior director of social responsibility.
Environmental and consumer groups praised the company for being the first major fast-food chain to act, although the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has protested the use of antibiotics in meat production, said the policy should have gone further.
Environmental Defense, which was part of the coalition McDonald's formed on the increasingly controversial issue last year, and other organizations said they hope the policy will mark a turning point in the way U.S. farmers raise animals.
"McDonald's new policy demonstrates that reducing antibiotic use is both feasible and affordable," said Gwen Ruta, the advocacy group's program director.
Tyson Foods, a top direct supplier of poultry to McDonald's, also worked with McDonald's on the changes as a part of the coalition.
"Along with McDonald's, we believe it is critical for our company and our industry to utilize antibiotics in a responsible manner, which preserves their long-term effectiveness in both human and veterinary medicine," said Archie Schaffer, a senior vice president of Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson.
But the Coalition for Animal Health, comprised of trade groups representing the animal production, animal feed and animal health products industries, disagreed with McDonald's contention that the new policy is science-based. It said that in Europe, where the use of antibiotics as growth promoters has been sharply lowered, incidences of disease have risen and antibiotics are being used increasingly to treat those ailments.
"We caution about actions not grounded in science," said spokesman Ron Phillips of the Animal Health Institute, a trade group for the makers of animal drugs. "As Europe is discovering, non-science based policies often have unintended consequences."
Becky Goldburg, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense, responded that the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and others have endorsed steps to reduce antibiotic use in animal feed.
The Union for Concerned Scientists said McDonald's should also have addressed antibiotics used for disease prevention and required third-party certification of its antibiotic monitoring program.
According to the scientists' group, an estimated 70 percent of antibiotics and related drugs in the United States are given to healthy pigs, cows and chickens to promote growth and prevent disease.
McDonald's shares fell 54 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $21.51 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
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