“I am writing to express my serious concern about the excessive use of medically important antibiotics in McDonald’s supply chains”. This is the start of a mass e-mail being sent to McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbook. The charity ShareAction is organizing consumers and investors to put pressure on the fast-food giant to prohibit the use of products from animals treated with antibiotics .
When it comes to antibiotics regulation, it seems that the power to change the world order will not come from citizens pressuring their governments but from teaming up vocal consumers and powerful companies.
Antibiotics are widely used in cattle, pigs and poultry farming. They are important for curing disease and providing “humane” care of animal illness in livestock as they reduce the suffering of a sick animal or help control the spread of an infection.
In addition to curing diseases and preventing infections, antibiotics are key in boosting output. Several antibiotics have side-effects that increase the growth speeds of farmed animals and improve feed efficiency in intensive animal rearing practices. Furthermore, according to the World Organization for Animal Health, the use of antibiotics is essential in securing the global supply of animal protein for humans .
However, the practice of antibiotic use has become so routine that scientists and consumers are increasingly becoming concerned about the links between antibiotic resistant infections in humans and the overuse of antibiotics in the meat supply chain.
Antimicrobial resistance is a public health problem of growing urgency, and the use of antibiotics in agriculture may play a significant role in aggravating the problem. Recent estimates by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggest that much more antibiotics are used each year on healthy animals than on sick humans in the US–as much as 8 more times . According to the Center for Disease and Control Prevention and many scientists around the world, his misuse of antimicrobials in the agricultural sector may be leading to a rise in drug-resistant superbugs and the world may be fast approaching what the World Health Organization has described as a “post-antibiotic era,” an era where routine operations will no longer be possible .
Some countries are more proactive than others in regulating the use of antibiotics in animal farming. Several European countries have banned the use of some drugs for preventive use. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently updated its regulations to try to begin reducing the use of antibiotic use on factory farms, and numerous senators and members of congress have showed support for acts proposing limits on the use of antibiotics. However, none of the proposed bills survived in congress. More generally, there are few legal instruments and little political support around the world to impose limits on the use of antibiotics for growth enhancement rather than disease treatment.
Excessive antibiotics use has global consequences, and is not bound by territorial borders. As citizens who directly suffer the increased risk of becoming exposed to drug-resistant bugs, we turn to our political representative bodies for an answer. However, when it comes to concrete changes in the antibiotic use in meat supply chains, local governments and politicians may be paralyzed. This topic confronts many powerful economic and political groups with special interests on public health, agricultural production practices, animal rights, international trade, and global food security. With so much lobbying pressure from so many directions, it appears that governments and politicians will be endlessly running into legal and financial obstacles.
However, there is an alternative for those of us concerned with antibiotic overuse and its link with super-bugs. As consumers of animal products from animals treated with antibiotics who want to feel confident that the food we purchase has been responsibly sourced and isn’t contributing to antimicrobial resistance, we can turn to the market for an answer.
That is exactly what ShareAction, a charity, is doing by encouraging people to e-mail McDonald’s CEO and demand he bans from McDonald’s menu all products from animals treated with antibiotics.
McDonald’s is a powerful player. It is the world’s largest chain of fast food restaurants, operating in over 100 countries and playing important roles in multiple global supply chains. A company of the size and reach of McDonald’s is uniquely placed to seize any opportunity for change in the restaurant sector. McDonald’s is an important buyer of products that go into their hamburgers, nuggets and fries. Thus, a small change in what it requires from beef and poultry producers is likely to have significant and substantial impacts in agricultural production practices across the globe.
Moreover, McDonald’s has a reputation of being responsive to changes in consumer tastes and a front-runner in sustainable practices. McDonald’s entire US chicken supply is now raised without the use of medically important antibiotics, and the company aims to phase out the use of the highest priority critically important antibiotics within the European poultry supply chains by 2018. Also, US dairy products, such as low fat white milk will some from cows that have not been treated with rbST–an artificial growth hormone .
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the lesson seems to be that for this particular case, rather than engaging in long and tedious political process to have our voices heard by our political representatives, it may be much more efficient–and tasty– to simply ignore the political process and use your consumer power to turn the world around. If you are concerned with the routine use of antibiotics reducing the effectiveness of drugs on humans, next time you go to McDonald’s simply ask for one McCombo without antibiotics.