June 27, 2003
McDonald's Phases Out Animal Growth Promotion Antibiotics from Global Supply Chain
by William Baue
McDonald's, which is often the first in its sector to introduce sustainable practices, will end use
of animal growth promotion antibiotics, but does this make the company socially responsible?
Last summer The Onion, a
satirical website, published a mock article entitled, "US Children Getting Majority of Antibiotics
from McDonald's Meat," lampooning the practice of feeding antibiotics to food animals to promote
growth. McDonald's (ticker: MCD) recent
actions sap the humor from this piece, as it vowed to phase out human medicine antibiotics in its
meat products by the end of 2004.
Last week, the fast food chain issued a Globa
l Policy on Antibiotics Use in Food Animals , which includes a set of "Guiding Principles
for Sustainable Use." Besides eliminating human medicine antibiotics as growth promoters in food
animals, the policy also sets standards for sustainable antibiotic use by direct suppliers.
Enforcement mechanisms include supplier certification, assurance, and auditing. Compliance with
the standards cannot be applied to indirect suppliers, but it will factor into purchase decisions.
"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,
McDonald's senior vice president of worldwide supply chain management.
The policy, which
resulted from deliberations between McDonald's and a multi-stakeholder Antibiotics Coalition, will
affect some 2.5 billion pounds of chicken, beef and pork purchased annually by the fast food giant.
Coalition participants include Environmental Defense, an environmental
nongovernmental organization (NGO), Brigham and Women's Hospital physician Dr. Thomas O'Brien, and
Oxford University animal welfare expert Dr. Marian Dawkins.
"I commend McDonald's in
taking a significant step forward for the whole industry," said Steve Lippman, senior social
research analyst at Trillium Asset
Management. "McDonald's consistently does things first within its category."
don't ever hear about Burger King or Wendy's (WEN) or any other players
in the fast food industry being the first to do things like pollution prevention, recycling, or
looking genetically modified organisms," Mr. Lippman told SocialFunds.com.
co-filed a shareowner resolution asking McDonald's to apply the high standards it sets on animal
welfare in the US and UK to all of its global operations and supply chain. Trillium had "weighed in
and helped influence them when they first developed those standards in 1994," according to Mr.
Lippman. The resolution received only 4.8 percent of the vote, though, falling short of the
threshold necessary to refile the resolution for a third year. However, Trillium will remain in
dialogue with McDonald's over this issue.
In addition to praising the move, Mr. Lippman
also invoked the counterargument advanced by Paul Hawken, author of Natural Capitalism,
which promotes an uncompromising vision of sustainability. Mr. Hawken contends that if a company
is based on an unsustainable business model, then its actions that seem socially and
environmentally responsible are moot in the larger analysis.
"If McDonald's is getting
people to eat higher on the food chain, which is inherently unsustainable, and focused on
advertising that gets kids to be obese, then who cares if they have 100 percent recycled paper
wrappers or whatever," said Mr. Lippman, paraphrasing Mr. Hawken's line of reasoning.
However, Mr. Lippman pointed out that McDonald's, and the business model on which it is based,
is probably not going to disappear tomorrow, so its responsible actions do generate concrete change
for the better.
"McDonald's has a huge amount of leverage in its global supply chain that
can raise the bar for the whole industry through this kind of innovation," he said.
Earlier this year, McDonald's implemented other innovative measures that promote sustainability
globally. In January it opened the world's first hydrofluorocarbon-free restaurant in Denmark, and
in the same month it announced that it will sell only organic milk in the UK. These announcements
were met with praise tinged with skepticism in the environmental and organic foods communities.
"The trend towards healthy eating and ethical purchasing suggests that McDonald's will
have to do much more than offer organic milk to strengthen its image," stated an opinion piece in
the Organic Monitor, which
provides of business intelligence on the international organic food industry. "Marketing organic
milk is a step in the right direction; however consumers will not patronise the restaurant just to
buy organic milk."
Nor will social investors necessarily invest in McDonald's based on a
single sustainability initiative, though they may be won over by an overall profile that