Rep. Slaughter Asks McDonald’s To Switch To Antibiotic-Free Beef

Some 80% of antibiotics sold in this country go to farmers to put in animal feed, and while the livestock and pharmaceutical industries now like to pretend it’s for disease prevention, the primary motive for shoving drugs down animals’ throats is because antibiotics have the happy side effect of encouraging growth. The practice is so widespread that it would take one of the country’s largest beef-buyers to result in any effective change, which is why New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter has called on McDonald’s to ditch drugged-up meat for good.

In a letter (full text below) to Michele Banik-Rake, McDonald’s Director of Sustainability for its Worldwide Supply Chain, Rep. Slaughter offers the suggestion that if the fast food chain is truly going to commit to the notion of using beef from sustainably raised cattle, it should realize that feeding medically unnecessary antibiotics to cows doesn’t match that goal.

“Beef production is not sustainable if antibiotics are overused,” writes Slaughter.

The McDonald’s Global Policy on Antibiotic Use in Food Animals does ostensibly prohibit the use of antibiotics in livestock if those drugs are also used in human medicine.

But that prohibition only applies to the use of antibiotics for the sole purpose of growth-promotion, meaning the drugs are still allowed under the vague heading of disease prevention.

In the wake of the recent, weak-kneed FDA guidance asking drug companies to only sell antibiotics for medically necessary purposes, livestock farmers only need to change the reasons for feeding the drugs to their animals; not the amount they are using. And as we saw last week, some drug companies are still openly advertising the growth-promotion aspects of their antibiotics.

“I fully support the treatment of sick animals,” writes Slaughter, who has a degree in microbiology and a Master’s degree in Public Health, “but I also know that so long as antibiotics are available for the ill-defined purpose of ‘disease prevention,’ there is no real incentive to decrease the overcrowding and insanitary conditions that foster these preventable diseases.”

The over-use of antibiotics in livestock feed has been repeatedly tied to the development of so-called “super bugs,” pathogens that are less-resistant to existing antibiotics. So while the drugs may be an easy way to get bigger pigs and cows, they are also serving to make antibiotics worthless.

McDonald’s claims it only buys about 2% of the total output of the U.S. beef and dairy industry, but Rep. Slaughter believes this number, along with the restaurant chain’s marquee brand, give it the leverage “to set the industry standard,” and not just for beef.

“By primarily sourcing beef from cows raised without antibiotics, and by insisting on antibiotic-free poultry production, McDonald’s can jump-start a worldwide system of sustainable production,” writes the Congresswoman. “Animals raised under hygienic and uncrowded conditions will be healthier, reducing their need for antibiotics and increasing animal welfare.”

Rep. Slaughter’s argument is much like the one our colleagues at Consumers Union have been trying to make to Trader Joe’s — that the company is large enough to force suppliers to sell more antibiotic-free beef, chicken and pork. The higher demand will lower the price for everyone, making drug-free food more accessible to all consumers.

Below is the full text of the letter from Rep. Slaughter to McDonald’s:

Dear Ms. Banik-Rake,
I would like to commend McDonald’s for its recently announced initiative to source hamburger beef from sustainably raised cows and strongly urge you to consider the issue of antibiotic overuse in your supply chain when defining sustainability. For the past seven years, I have been leading the charge in Congress to protect eight classes of antibiotics for human use and the treatment of sick animals through a bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA). Given that over 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US are used in agriculture, a situation that hastens the development of antibiotic resistance, we need to be especially concerned with how our meat is produced.

Beef production is not sustainable if antibiotics are overused. In a previous letter sent to my office in response to a survey I initiated of fast food chains and grocery stores, the McDonald’s Global Policy on Antibiotic Use in Food Animals was described as prohibiting the use of antibiotics in meat production when those drugs are also used in human medicine. However, this policy only applies when the reason for the antibiotic use is growth promotion alone. While this prohibition is important, it is not comprehensive. Your policy still encouraged the “sustainable” use of antibiotics in disease prevention and treatment. I fully support the treatment of sick animals, but I also know that so long as antibiotics are available for the ill-defined purpose of “disease prevention,” there is no real incentive to decrease the overcrowding and insanitary conditions that foster these preventable diseases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 2 million people contract antibiotic resistant infections each year in the US, and at least 23,000 die as a direct result. Antibiotics are an essential requirement for modern medicine, and scientists around the world are predicting that in as little as one decade, common surgeries like knee and hip replacements, cesarean sections, and dental work could become lethally dangerous due to antibiotic resistance. Some people may get these infections directly from antibiotic resistant bacteria present on their food, but others will suffer because they live near a facility that routinely uses antibiotics. The levels of resistant bacteria present in the environment tie directly to the amounts of antibiotics we use, whether in agriculture or in hospitals.

Even though, as your website suggests, McDonald’s purchases represent less than 2% of the total beef and dairy industry, you have the potential to set the industry standard. And why stop with beef? McDonald’s owns all of the chickens raised for use in your restaurants. With such leverage, you have a real opportunity to lead in sustainable poultry production as well. As you say, the goal is to lead a sea-change in the industry at large. I encourage your commitment to transparency and engagement, and I hope the McDonald’s strategy also includes firm commitments to limit the overall use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. By primarily sourcing beef from cows raised without antibiotics, and by insisting on antibiotic-free poultry production, McDonald’s can jump-start a worldwide system of sustainable production. Animals raised under hygienic and uncrowded conditions will be healthier, reducing their need for antibiotics and increasing animal welfare.

I urge you to consider antibiotic use when crafting McDonald’s policy for sourcing sustainable beef so that generations of people and animals to come can continue to use this precious resource.

Sincerely,

Louise M. Slaughter