WHO gets the point about factory farming
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2003:
GENEVA–The World Health Organization on August 13, 2003
recommended that national governments should phase out the addition
of antibiotics to animal feed when the drugs are given to healthy
animals “for the sole purpose of growth promotion.”
“WHO’s recommendation does not require nations to act,”
explained Washington Post agriculture writer Marc Kaufman. “But this
will add to the movement to stop routine use of antibiotics on farms,
and to the kind of public pressure that recently led the McDonald’s
fast-food chain to tell suppliers to cut back on antibiotic growth
“We have believed for some time that giving animals low
dosages of antibiotics throughout their lives to make them grow
faster is a bad idea,” WHO antibiotic project leader Peter Braam
told Kaufman. “Now we have solid scientific data,” from a newly
completed five-year study of the results of a voluntary phase-out of
antibiotic growth promoters in Denmark, “that producers can
terminate this practice without negative effects for the animals,
and with good effects for humans.”
The Danish producers found that the cost of raising pork
increased 1% without routine use of antibiotics. The percentages of
pigs and chickens carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria, however,
dropped from a range of 60%-80% to a range of 5%-35%.
Continued Kaufman, “WHO officials say that about half of the
antibiotics used by livestock growers worldwide are low-dose growth
promoters, the type that public health experts say are most likely to
promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
The Animal Health Institute, representing agricultural drug
makers, claims only 13% to 17% of the antibiotics used on U.S. farms
are low-dose growth promoters, but the Union of Concerned Scientists
has affirmed the WHO estimate.
“WHO’s recommendation goes well beyond the steps taken by the
McDonald’s fast-food chain in June, when it told meat suppliers it
wanted them to reduce or stop the use of some growth promoters by the
end of next year,” Kaufman noted. “McDonald’s policy would prohibit
the use of 24 antibiotic growth promoters, but would allow low-dose
antibiotics that act to prevent disease rather than solely promote
growth. The Danish ban is on all low-dosage antibiotics, whatever
their purpose. A similar ban will go into effect across the European
Union in 2006.”
By going beyond McDonald’s requirements, WHO reinforced
McDonald’s position that what it is asking is reasonable and easy for
farmers to comply with.
National Pork Board spokesperson Cynthia Cunningham earlier
complained to New York Times reporter David Barboza that,
“McDonald’s is trying to be laudable, but their position was based
The McDonald’s requirement and WHO recommendation came 39
years after British Quaker vegetarian advocate Ruth Harrison urged a
global ban of routine prophylactic use of antibiotics in farm animals
in Animal Machines, the 1964 book that made factory farming a major
Introduced by Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, Animal
Machines exposed intensive confinement methods of raising poultry,
veal calves, and pigs.
“Animal Machines drew attention to the dangers to humans from
eating meat laced with antibiotics, which are given to
factory-farmed animals to reduce disease among them, and to enhance
growth and profits,” recalled Ann Cottrell Free, whose newspaper
exposes were instrumental in winning passage of the U.S. Humane
Slaughter Act in 1958.
Harrison fully appreciated the value of antibiotics, having
served in the Friends Ambulance Unit during World War II, and having
assisted displaced persons in disease-plagued refugee camps after the
war. Long before the medical mainstream got the point, Harrison also
clearly understood that disease-carrying microbes could evolve
antibiotic-resistant strains if over-exposed to antibiotics through
routine agricultural use.
Her message was amplified by Jim Mason and Peter Singer in
Animal Factories (1980, updated 1990), but perhaps because
Harrison, Mason, and Singer were all closely associated with the
rise of the animal rights movement, their warnings about the
consequences for humans of antibiotic use in industrial agriculture
were largely ignored until after whole classes of antibiotic began
failing in the mid-1990s.
Fast food initiatives
Under activist and consumer pressure, wrote Barboza on page
one of the June 25 New York Times business section, “McDonald’s,
Burger King, KFC, and Wendy’s have all underwritten research and
recently hired what are called ‘animal welfare specialists’ to help
them devise new standards aimed at more humane treatment of the
animals destined for their kitchens. Industry trade groups are
promoting the new rules and conducting audits of livestock producers
to assure they are being followed.”
Many of the initiatives grow out of discussions started
during the mid-1990s by Coalition for Nonviolent Food founder Henry
Spira. McDonald’s was first to pledge some of the recent actions,
in a 1994 pact signed with Spira and Colorado State University
livestock welfare expert Temple Grandin–but Spira, who died in
1998, did not live long enough to secure McDonald’s compliance with
the terms to which it had agreed.
Other farm animal welfare organizations were able to monitor
specific industries and facilities, e.g. the Humane Farming
Association surveillance of steroid use in the veal industry and
slaughtering procedures at the Iowa Beef Processors packing plant in
Wallula, Washington. Even the largest farm animal advocacy
organizations, however, claim “only” tens of thousands of
supporters, not the tens of millions whose potential loss as
customers really scares the fast food industry.
Ensuring follow-through where Spira had opened doors was at
last taken up by PETA two years after Spira’s death.
“McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s have done some pretty good
stuff, but they had to be prodded into it,” PETA spokesperson Dan
Shannon told Barboza.
In May PETA suspended a six-month boycott of KFC after the
parent company, Yum! Brands Inc., announced that it will begin
requiring the 18 poultry producers who supply poultry to KFC
restaurants to allow the birds 30% more freedom of movement, take
steps to prevent rough handling at slaughterhouses, and otherwise
improve the care and feeding of chickens.
But the boycott suspension was short-lived. Accusing Yum!
Brands CEO David Novak of reneging on a promise to install cameras in
slaughterhouses to help ensure the expeditious deaths of chickens,
PETA representative Juergen Faulman greeted Novak with a
feather-and-fake-blood-throwing protest when the CEO appeared in
Garbsen, Germany, on June 23 to open a new franchise.
On July 6 PETA sued KFC in Los Angeles County Superior Court
for allegedly misleading the public with web site statements about
the extent of the company commitment to animal welfare.
The campaign gained momentum from a rumor amplified by PETA
that former KFC television pitchman Jason Alexander was dismissed
after raising animal welfare issues with KFC executives. KFC denied
it; Alexander issued only a very brief and ambiguous statement.
Just as the dust settled, Sir Paul McCartney backed PETA in
an open letter to Novak published as a full-page ad in the July 24
edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
PETA, though by far the biggest, is scarcely the only
advocacy organization actively pressuring the fast food giants.
Hundreds of activists from as far away as the Ukraine protested
against McDonald’s and other meat-promoting fast food companies at
the May 17 “Veggie Pride” demonstration in Paris, France, and a
coalition called Keep Antibiotics Working, backed by the Union of
Concerned Scientists, picketed Burger King franchises in four U.S.
cities on June 12.
Beyond their still limited concessions on animal welfare,
McDonald’s and Burger King have shown they are paying attention by
introducing vegetarian burgers to their regular menus. The BK Veggie
burger launched successfully throughout the U.S. in March 2002. The
McVeggie Burger, featuring a Hain brand soy patty, debuted on May
13 at 600 restaurants in southern California. Hain is reportedly
optimistic that after a trial run the McVeggie Burger will be added
to the menus of all 13,000 McDonald’s franchises.
Some McDonald’s franchises in England, India, Canada, and
New York City have already experimentally offered various types of
vegetarian burgers for several years, but McDonald’s has been
cautious about testing any of them on a larger scale, ostensibly
because of the failure of a meatless “pineapple burger” nearly 40
How many veggies?
The increasing availability of vegetarian meat analog
products in both restaurants and supermarkets may be a more certain
indication of changing eating habits than public opinion polls,
which continue to produce ambiguous results–albeit consistently
confirming that younger generations are eating ever less meat.
Daily Telegraph food correspondent Robert Uhlig reported on
July 9 that “More than a million Britons abandoned vegetarianism over
the past two years, while more red meat is eaten than at any time
since 1985. Vegetarianism [in Britain] peaked at 3.25 million in
1997, a year after the brain wasting disease new variant
Creutzer-Jakob Syndrome was linked by scientists to mad cow disease.
Only 2.24 million Britons now claim to be vegetarians, the lowest
Nonetheless, where only 2.1% of British citizens were
vegetarian in 1984, 4% are vegetarian today.
Reviewing the findings from a variety of polls by different
agencies, the Vegetarian Resource Group estimates that there are
about 5.7 million adult vegetarians in the U.S., of whom about a
third consider themselves vegans. The number of vegans appears to
have almost tripled since 1994. Overall, about 4% of U.S. adults
are vegetarians, but this includes 10% in the age range from 18 to
34, and the evolution of the trend has been apparent over time.
The major ambiguity in the U.S. data is that some people who
call themselves vegetarians do eat fish or fowl, while many others
who do not call themselves vegetarians actually consume very little
flesh, if any. Diet studies often find that there are nearly as
many “meat avoiders” as declared vegetarians.