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McDonald's Takes Huge Step Toward Antibiotic Reform

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The announcement totaled a few sentences in many newspapers and didn't even make some local newscasts.

Yet the impact of McDonald's phasing out of growth-promoting antibiotics in its poultry, pork and beef will be big.

Seismic big.

By the end of 2004, direct suppliers for McDonald's no longer will be able to use antibiotics to encourage growth of chickens, pigs or cattle. The medicine will be restricted to illness-related use only.

Score one for the fast-food, meganational corporation guys.

Antibiotics routinely are given to animals to promote growth and prevent possible infection. This overuse of antibiotics worries researchers who believe that harmful bacteria can develop a resistance to such antibiotics, leading to "superbugs" that can cause illness or even kill animals and humans.

One estimate indicates that nearly three-quarters of all antibiotics used in this country are fed to healthy farm animals.

Poultry producers are tops on the list of antibiotics abusers. Seventy percent of the global poultry supply for McDonald's comes from direct suppliers who now must, ahem, go cold turkey on the antibiotics.

Though McDonald's pork and beef suppliers are considered indirect suppliers, they still will confront the fast-food giant's "purchasing preference" guidelines. McDonald's, for example, will favor pork suppliers who do not administer antibiotics to promote growth. Antibiotic abuse in pigs is second only to chickens.

"We are asking producers that supply over 2.5 billion pounds of chicken, beef and pork annually to take actions that will ultimately help protect public health," said Frank Muschetto, senior vice president of worldwide supply chain management at McDonald's.

Strangely and happily enough, the ardent environmentalists are quick to commend McDonald's for its move. In fact, the highly respected Environmental Defense activist organization partnered with McDonald's on the measure.

"We are looking for win-win situations, if you will, for both the environment and business," said Gwen Ruta, director of alliance programs with Environmental Defense, or ED. "We're happy to report that the antibiotics change isn't expected to increase prices for consumers."

Ruta said McDonald's and ED (and its 300,000 individual dues-paying members) are not the strange bedfellows one might surmise. In fact, the two organizations first worked together in 1990, when McDonald's replaced its polystyrene premium sandwich "clam-shell-type" containers with more environmentally friendly thin paper wrappers still used today.

"We're pragmatists," Ruta said. "Few groups have more power to create positive environmental change than business. It quickens the pace of environmental change."

Nonetheless, ED takes no money from corporations and reserves the right to "call a company out" on any discovered transgressions, Ruta explained.

"We call on other large purchasers of pork, beef and poultry to adopt similar policies," Ruta said. "It sends a strong message to meat producers that use of antibiotics must be curbed."

Don't expect Ruta and her colleagues to wait by the phone to hear from meat suppliers. She is busy at work with such companies as Federal Express and Citicorp on other projects.

In May, FedEx announced it will test 20 hybrid electric-diesel trucks in four cities this fall. The truck will run on a combination diesel fuel (using a smaller engine than normal) and electric power.

Ruta said the prototype truck increases fuel efficiency by 50 percent and eliminates 90 percent of particulate or soot emissions and reduces smog-causing emissions by 75 percent. The technology was supplied by Eaton Corp.

Here's an encouraging detail: The hybrid delivery van actually will store energy in the electric battery each time it stops during the day (which numbers in the hundreds to thousands for each route) rather the customary heating up of the brakes.

In a standard car or truck, that brake heat is "wasting" gasoline. The FedEx hybrid truck will not burn that fuel unnecessarily, plus it will use the electric power recaptured to start up the truck again (saving yet more fuel).

If the prototype tests well, FedEx has committed to converting its fleet of 30,000 medium-use delivery vans during the next decade.

In another eco-fortifying development, Citicorp and ED announced last week that the financial-services firm has started using 30 percent postconsumer recycled paper rather than "virgin" paper. Financial-services firms use about a third more paper per employee than companies in other industries.

The Citicorp paper shift figures to save 1,000 tons of solid waste, 19 million gallons of wastewater pollution and 2,000 tons of greenhouse-gas emissions each year.

Big business, seismic changes.


(Bob Condor writes for the Chicago Tribune. Write to him at: the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.)


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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