NEW YORK -
Watchers of the fast food industry say a move by mega-company McDonald's to pressure its suppliers to phase out most antibiotics from their farms by the end of next year could signal a major awakening to the problem of antibiotics overuse.
The McDonald's announcement on Jun. 19 followed years of lobbying by consumer, health, environmental and other advocacy groups, who were concerned with mounting evidence that the millions of pounds of antibiotics fed to farm animals were working their way up the food chain, with unforeseen consequences.
”It's an extremely important development, especially coming from the world's largest food chain,” said Michael Kharfen, spokesperson for Keep Antibiotics Working (KAW), a pressure group with more than 9 million members.
”This is reverberating throughout the entire food industry,” he said in an interview. ”I think it will add significant pressure to other (fast food) chains. It's a very competitive field. Consumers can go to McDonald's and know that the food they eat there is not necessarily contributing to reducing their public health safety net.”
Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria evolve in a way that lowers or eliminates the effectiveness of drugs designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and multiply, causing more harm.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about 70 percent of the bacteria that cause infections in hospitals are resistant to at least one of the drugs most commonly used to treat infections.
For example, when penicillin was first mass produced in the 1940s, virtually all strains of the staphylococcus aureus bacteria were susceptible. Today, more than 90 percent of S. aureus strains -- which cause abscesses, bronchitis and pneumonia -- are resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics that once killed them.
In some parts of the world, treatment of gonorrhea and bacterial intestinal infections is now limited to a single effective antibiotic.
”Antibiotics are very heavily used in many developing countries where they are loosely regulated,” said Becky Goldburg, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense, in a statement. ”The new policy could have a significant impact on the production of meat for McDonald's in developing countries because suppliers for McDonald's in those countries will have to reduce their use of antibiotics.”
”Having a company like McDonald's recognize the problem helps point the way toward sensible national policies to end inappropriate antibiotic use in animal agriculture,” Goldburg added. ”These antibiotics are often used to compensate for the crowded, stressful conditions that are found on many large animal-production facilities.”
The new rules will affect the meat produced for the company's 30,000 restaurants in 118 countries.
Farm animals are often given antibiotics not because they are sick, but for therapeutic or production reasons. In fact, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, about 70 percent of the antibiotics and related drugs in the United States are fed to healthy pigs, cows and chickens to boost growth and prevent disease.
Over half are ”medically important” drugs -- identical or so closely related to human medicines that they can cause microbes to become resistant to drugs used to treat human illness, ultimately making some sicknesses harder to treat.
These drugs are also escaping into the wider environment. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found anti-microbial residues in almost half of 139 streams surveyed nationwide.
Unless the problem is addressed, the FDA warns, the world could be faced with previously treatable diseases that have again become untreatable, as in the days before antibiotics were developed. Resistance is also hindering the development of new classes of antibiotics, even as breakthroughs are occurring daily in other fields of medicine.
Europe is already far ahead of the United States, with the European Commission considering phasing out all growth-promoting antibiotics by 2006. Sweden and Denmark have both banned these drugs already.
Danish officials say that as a result, the prevalence of resistance in food animals has fallen dramatically. Danish veterinarians say that the ban has not affected the health of the animals or the consumer price of meat.
”The Danish experience shows you can weed out antibiotics and not lose production,” Kharfen said. ”We've also seen a resurgence of bacteria that is not resistant to antibiotics and can be treated.”
KAW is working with the U.S. Congress to introduce a bill that would completely phase out the majority of antibiotic use in farm animals, although this is being opposed by some in the powerful pharmaceutical lobby.
”Sad to say, there is a fairly substantial monetary interest within the pharmaceutical industry,” Kharfen said. ”Unfortunately, it's profit over public health.”
For example, the drug giant Bayer has been aggressively fighting an FDA ban on the use of Baytril, an antibiotic manufactured by Bayer to treat sick chickens. The FDA's October 2000 proposal to ban the use of Baytril in poultry is based on findings that the drug contributes to antibiotic-resistance in certain bacteria that cause severe food poisoning in people.
Fluoroquinolones, a category that includes both Baytril and Cipro, are a critically important class of antibiotics for treating severe bacterial infections in people. Most major restaurant chains have already dropped all animal products containing fluoroquinolones.
Michael Khoo, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, applauded the McDonald's decision -- the most far-reaching so far by a major U.S. company -- but said it needed to go even further.
The policy is mandatory only for poultry suppliers -- the majority of McDonald's direct suppliers -- not beef and pork suppliers, which are mostly middlemen, he noted. It also focuses on antibiotics used for growth promotion and leaves out the larger category of antibiotics used for disease prevention.
”Still, it's a very significant event ,” Khoo told IPS. ”I don't think any of these companies would act without pressure from non-governmental organizations. The McDonald's announcement adds momentum and signals to the industry that there's changes coming.”
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