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CHICAGO - McDonald's Corp. on Thursday became the first major fast-food chain to ask its meat suppliers to phase out the routine use of growth-promoting antibiotics in animals.
The decision came after a year of consultations with environmental, science and consumer groups that had pushed for cutbacks. Those organizations hope the move by one of the largest meat buyers marks a turning point in the way U.S. farmers raise animals.
The policy does not prohibit the use of antibiotics to treat sick livestock. It is aimed instead at antibiotics routinely given to animals to promote growth.
McDonald's is telling its direct suppliers -- those that control all stages of animal production -- to phase out such antibiotics by the end of 2004. Direct suppliers provide most of McDonald's poultry and 20 percent of its meat.
Direct suppliers will be checked periodically and will be asked to certify every year that they are complying.
The Oak Brook, Ill.-based company also is offering incentives to indirect suppliers of beef and pork to follow the policy.
"As a company committed to social responsibility, we take seriously our obligation to understand the emerging science of antibiotic resistance and to work with our suppliers to foster real, tangible changes in our own supply community and hopefully beyond," said Frank Muschetto, a McDonald's senior VP.
"McDonald's is 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."
Tyson Foods, a top direct supplier of poultry to McDonald's, is among the companies that worked on the changes.
"Along with McDonald's, we believe it is critical for our company and our industry to utilize antibiotics in a responsible manner, which preserves their long-term effectiveness in both human and veterinary medicine," said Archie Schaffer, a senior VP of Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson.
The Coalition for Animal Health, made up of trade groups representing the animal production, animal feed and animal health products industries, disputed the reasoning behind the new policy. It said disease rates have risen in Europe since the use of antibiotics as growth promoters was sharply lowered there.
Last year, under pressure from animal rights groups, McDonald's started requiring its suppliers to adopt minimum standards for the way chickens are raised. It set a precedent followed elsewhere in the industry.