Human Health and Animal Welfare

Will the McDonald's policy cure cruelty to chickens?

By Karen Davis

Transport of Chickens

On June 19, 2003, the McDonald's Corp. announced a ban on the use of growth-promoting antibiotics in chickens raised for the company's 30,000 restaurants worldwide. The policy, to be fully implemented by the end of 2004, requires suppliers to eliminate feeding antibiotics used in human medicine to chickens to make them grow abnormally fast and large.

McDonald's is promoting the policy as part of its overall commitment to social responsibility and animal welfare. In 2000, McDonald's became the first U.S. food company to impose minimum welfare standards on its egg suppliers when it announced suppliers must stop withholding food from hens to manipulate egg production (a practice known as "forced molting"), increase the amount of cage space for each hen from 48 to 72 square inches, and phase out debeaking.

The move signaled acknowledgement that many farming practices are not only inhumane, but are also responsible for a growing number of health risks affecting both animals raised for food and consumers and handlers of animal products. For example, force-molting hens damages their immune systems so severely as to invite Salmonella enteritidis infection of their ovaries and their eggs.

Banning the growth-promoting use of antibiotics is further acknowledgement that the way chickens are raised-crowded and confined by the thousands in filthy, ammonia-filled houses and fed unwholesome products (everything from used restaurant grease and diseased carcasses to manure) laced with antibiotics--predisposes them to infections that can be passed on to humans, often with long-lasting and even fatal effects. This fact was underscored as early as 1964 at a conference on salmonella, already identified as a health problem linked to the intensive confinement of chickens.

Since then, salmonella has evolved new, more virulent strains in response to antibiotic overuse, as has the intestinal bacterium campylobacter, which infests poultry houses and clings to the birds so effectively that between 42 and 95 percent of chickens sampled in supermarkets in 2002 were reported infected, according to studies conducted by Consumer Reports and the Sierra Club. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conservatively estimates that each year in the United States, between 200 and 800 people die of campylobacter infections and 2 million to 8 million people are sickened by them.

The McDonald's decision comes in the wake of evidence that the antibiotic that has been most effective in treating salmonella and campylobacter infections in humans, and respiratory infections in birds, is losing its effectiveness. The antibiotic (named Cipro for humans and Baytril for animals) is in the class of anti-microbials known as fluoroquinolones. Since 1995, when the Food and Drug Administration licensed fluoroquinolones for use in chickens against the advice of the CDC, antibiotic-resistant campylobacter levels have soared, all the more disturbingly given that campylobacter is the presumed cause of the potentially fatal nerve-damage disease, Guillain-Barre syndrome, which sickens about 5,000 people a year in the United States and usually requires patients to stay on a respirator in the intensive care unit.

It is important to understand that McDonald's is banning only one antibiotic use-growth promotion. The ban does not include the medicinal use of antibiotics in chickens raised for the company. Partly for this reason, and because antibiotics used for growth-promotion are typically the same as or similar to those used for disease control in the poultry houses, it is unclear how effective the ban will be in reducing antibiotic-resistant bacteria or improving animal welfare.

Already, the poultry industry is developing products and techniques to ensure that, with or without antibiotics, chickens and turkeys will continue to grow to even more pathological weights in shorter time periods on less food.

One such product deactivates the protein, myostatin, which prevents birds' muscles from overdeveloping. Many genetic engineering projects are underway to make birds grow into mountains of "meat" without any concern for their suffering or for animal welfare.

The McDonald's ban is in lieu of U.S. government oversight of antibiotic use in farmed animals. U.S. producers are not required to report how much or which antibiotics they use, and most of these antibiotics are available without a prescription. By contrast, McDonald's is requiring suppliers to keep accurate records for audits demonstrating compliance with the company's policy.

It remains to be seen what effect, if any, the McDonald's policy will have on the health of consumers and the welfare of chickens and other farmed animals. Most important, McDonald's should extend its commitment to animal welfare by requiring suppliers to eliminate the crowding, poor hygiene and forced rapid growth that necessitate the overuse of antibiotics to control the diseases that multiply under these conditions. If living conditions were less stressful and more humane, fewer medicinal antibiotics would be needed and the overall use of antibiotics, not only those used as growth promoters, should decline and be easier to monitor.

This commentary appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 14, 2003.


Inside the Chicken Industry

In the Spring issue of PoultryPress ( we ran Virgil Butler’s testimony describing his employment at a Tyson chicken slaughterhouse from 1997 to 2002. Mr. Butler wrote the following letter to the San Francisco Chronicle in response to Karen Davis’s commentary on the McDonald’s antibiotics policy.

Will the McDonald’s policy cure cruelty to chickens?

I don’t believe so. I worked at a Tyson chicken slaughter plant in Grannis, AR (a supplier for McDonald’s, KFC, etc.) for a number of years and a few other plants as well. I caught chickens from the houses as a teenager before that. I am intimately familiar with the poultry business and the living conditions of the chickens.

I have seen the filth, death, and disease that breed from these conditions as well as the outright abuse the chickens endure from the workers. What I have seen is bad enough that my wife and I no longer eat chicken.

I have seen the chickens blinded by the ammonia fumes that build up in the houses. I have had the ammonia burns on my arms from handling the chickens that were coated with ammonia. My exposure lasted only for a night’s work before I could wash it off. The chickens had to live that way.

I’ve seen chickens starve in the houses because their feet were stuck in the muck. I’ve seen the catchers stomp, kick, and slam chickens on the ground. I’ve seen them “cull the runts” by pulling their heads off. I’ve seen all the roosters of a breeder house be killed by having their heads bashed by a metal pipe, since they were too big for our plant to hang, unlike the spent hens. These spent breeder chickens don’t go to McDonald’s directly, but they are a by-product of the industry. These chickens are fed to other chickens as well as to your pet dog.

What about all the chickens that don’t live long enough to make it to the slaughter plant because they have died of disease or been killed by cruelty? Technically McDonald’s would be able to say that their chickens didn’t suffer the cruelty that killed these chickens. They are wrong. Their chickens suffered the same conditions and risks, but were unfortunate enough to survive long enough (a couple of months) to have to suffer the final cruelty of all, the slaughter.

At the slaughter plant I’ve seen birds scalded alive, pulled apart, and blown up with dry ice bombs for laughs. I’ve seen them run over by forklifts. These issues have nothing to do with antibiotics.

These points don’t list anywhere near the routine cruelty I have seen through the years, but they would not be addressed by McDonald’s in this new policy. This new policy might ban antibiotics used as growth-enhancers, but as long as farmers raise the birds in the conditions they do, they will have to give the birds antibiotics just to keep them alive.

Virgil Butler

What Can I Do?

Eat vegan AND urge the chicken industry to set specific welfare standards eliminating the crowding, poor hygiene, forced rapid growth, and worker abuse of chickens. Request a written reply.

George Watts, President
National Chicken Council
1015 15th Street, NW, Suite 930
Washington DC 20005-2605
Ph: 202-296-2622
Fax: 202-293-4005