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Journalism School's Michael Pollan has a beef with McDonald's antibiotics announcement

 Author Michael Pollan
Science writer and UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan. (Judith Belzer)
- On June 19, the fast-food titan McDonald's announced it would ask its meat suppliers to stop using antibiotics to promote growth, and to cut back on antibiotics used in animals for other purposes. Close to 25 million pounds of antibiotics are fed every year to livestock — almost eight times the amount given to humans to treat disease according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The unregulated, widespread use of antibiotics in animals has led to bacteria that are resistant to older drugs such as penicillin and tetracycline, making them less effective in treating sick humans.

McDonald's move was hailed by consumer, environmental, and animal-health advocates alike as a step toward healthier meat production. The NewsCenter asked Michael Pollan, the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, whether he agreed. A renowned science journalist and author of the best-selling book "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World," Pollan wrote an influential New York Times Magazine cover story in 2002 that followed a steer from birth through the feedlot to slaughter. Pollan is not a vegetarian: he undertook the "Power Steer" article for educational purposes. "I wanted to find out how a modern, industrial steak is produced in America these days," he wrote.

He spoke to us from Connecticut as his family packed for the move to Berkeley, where he will resume teaching this fall.

First of all, explain why meat suppliers use such large quantities of antibiotics.

There are two reasons for using antibiotics in factory farming. One is to keep the animals healthy in a situation that would tend to make them sick, where there is severe overcrowding, high stress, and very unsanitary conditions - they're living in their own wastes. All of that tends to be breeding grounds for disease. So if you're going to grow them indoors, or even on feedlots in close confinement, you have to give them antibiotics to keep them healthy.

The other reason is that small quantities of antibiotics promote faster growth in many species, particularly chickens and pigs, for reasons that scientists don't actually understand. In general, with cattle, it's not for growth promotion, but more for disease and to help the animals tolerate the feedlot diet. That's part of keeping them healthy under conditions far removed from what they were evolved to deal with.

What McDonald's has done is say that they will favor suppliers that are not using antibiotics for growth promotion. Now they didn't say anything about the other use of antibiotics. So it makes me wonder just how revolutionary this will be.

I think the policy is that suppliers can still use antibiotics to treat sick animals and to prevent disease outbreaks.

"Prevent disease outbreaks" is key. In that sentence is the license to continue including antibiotics in the feed every day. The other question that comes to mind: If you're using antibiotics both for growth promotion and to control disease, how do you know which is which? I don't mean to throw cold water over this, because I think the McDonald's announcement is very significant, but you have to look at the small print. Could someone engage in the same practice with a different justification, which would leave the whole issue of antibiotics pretty much unchanged? Yes.

McDonald's did say it would audit its suppliers just as when it was enforcing more humane slaughtering methods.

And they have done that very effectively. In general, McDonald's has been a force for reform in this industry over the last couple years. They've brought about some substantial changes in factory farming. Because of McDonald's, slaughter practices are better than they were three years ago, and they are to be commended for that.

'This whole system depends on antibiotics. As much as McDonald's might like to, the industry can't simply throw away that crutch without rethinking everything.'
-Michael Pollan
But the antibiotics issue is a very tricky one. Poultry suppliers pledged last year to cut down on antibiotics use. The last information I saw on that was that after declining a bit, the numbers are trending back up again. Perhaps it's harder to cut back than they thought. The thing about antibiotics is that they're not just chemicals that people are using and they can stop using. It's part of a whole system. If you could segregate out the growth promotion, you could say, "We'll all grow our meat a little more slowly, it'll be a little more expensive as a result, but we can elect to stop." But using antibiotics to prevent outbreaks of disease is one of the linchpins of the whole system. And if you take away that linchpin, it's arguable whether the system can survive. Feedlots depend on antibiotics.

In general, the use of antibiotics in beef is to prevent outbreaks of disease, which McDonald's is not trying to stop. So the biggest impact will be on chicken and pork. McDonald's has a huge presence in poultry; McNuggets consumes tens of millions of chickens. The question to ask McDonald's, or rather the "farmers" - I use that term loosely, it's a misnomer for the companies that sell to McDonald's - who are going to try to comply is, "Are you using different antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention, or are they the same ones?" If they're the same ones, I don't see what's going to change. If they're different ones, we'll at least save the ones that were being used for growth promotion for humans, and that's all for the good. Still, given the role of antibiotics in agriculture, don't expect too much from it.

So let's talk about beef, because that's where factory farming seems to be most dependent on antibiotics. Why are they used, if not for growth promotion?

One thing to remember is that the antibiotics used in beef tend not to be the ones that compete with human antibiotics. Chicken is where they were apparently using Cipro and other antibiotics that we depend on. In the case of beef cattle, they use them because if you have a feeding system that's dependent on diets very high in corn, up to 80 or 90 percent corn, you just can't do that without antibiotics. You would have to back way off and give the cattle more roughage, more hay and grass.

Why does a corn diet require antibiotics?

Corn is a very different, much starchier ration than cows have evolved to digest. The marvelous things about ruminants, which is what cows are, is that they can digest grass, which we can't do. They can because they have this complicated digestive system. Specifically, they have a rumen, which is a fermentation tank in which bacteria go to work breaking down cellulose and turning it into protein that they then digest. This is their boon to the food chain. It's a very nice system where the sun feeds the grass and the grass feeds the cows and the cows feed us. It's solar, sustainable, and in its way, elegant.

But it's slow, by the standards of contemporary agriculture, and it takes a lot of space. So if you want to speed up the process, you give them richer food. The cheapest, richest food around is corn. The price of corn is artificially lower than the cost of producing it, because of government subsidies and the fact that there's an oversupply. But if you want to feed them on corn, which makes them grow a lot faster and gives them fattier marbled beef, which tastes good, you have to accustom them to this diet slowly. As typically happens, you start putting them on antibiotics - coccidiostats, which some people would argue are not antibiotics, but they kill bacteria, so I'm prepared to call them antibiotics. That's the first antibiotics they go on, and then they go on the other antibiotics once they move to the feedlot.

The reason they need antibiotics is that corn acidifies their gut. The cow's stomach is not accustomed to this acid the way our digestive system is — we're designed to have this very acidic system that kill everything and breaks things down through acids. They're not. As it acidifies, it eats away at the lining of the stomach walls, and lets some of the bacteria get into the bloodstream, where it lodges in the liver and causes abscesses. So farmers use antibiotics to control that infection process.

And that's why we rarely eat beef liver anymore?

Yes. A very high percentage, I've heard 30 to 40 percent, of the livers found at slaughter have to be thrown out because they have abscesses. They're diseased. I've talked to vets who've said, "We don't know how long they could live on this kind of diet, but it's not indefinitely." These animals are slaughtered at 14 to 16 months old. Whether they could even live two or three years is an open question . on that diet, that is. Put them back on grass and they could live to a ripe old age.

This whole system of keeping the animals in confinement and giving them an incredibly rich diet to grow them very quickly and get them to slaughter at 14 months (which is an amazing accomplishment - it used to take years to get a cow to slaughter), depends on antibiotics. As much as McDonald's might like to, the industry can't simply throw away that crutch without rethinking everything. So there's a structural issue with antibiotics that I'm not sure is being addressed here. It's not just a matter of taking away one drug, but of looking at the whole system, looking at the diet, the confinement. I don't know that the industry is prepared to go that far.

If this is such a limited step, why do you think McDonald's is even bothering?

Because they're very concerned about improving their image. They want middle-class Americans to feel good about feeding their children there, not like they're supporting this malign force. McDonald's has been struggling, its market share is down. Thanks in part to Eric Schlosser's bestseller "Fast Food Nation" and all the concern with obesity, fast food has a poor reputation right now. I think you've got a company in the midst of very shrewdly changing its public image. And if they can address some of these issues of animal welfare and antibiotic resistance, they'll make people feel a lot better for patronizing them. And it's all for the good. This is how it's supposed to work. Consumers exert pressure, and sometimes companies respond to it.

We've talked about the use of antibiotics, but growth hormones are just as widely used in factory farming. Do they have any health and/or environmental effects?

Beef do get the growth hormones, and I think chicken and pigs do too. In beef, the males get female hormones, and females get male hormones, and this stimulates their growth. The dangers are twofold. People worry about residues in the meat, which are actually quite small, but they're detectable. And as we're learning, hormones have outsized effects that don't follow the normal dose curves. Very small amounts of hormone at certain times in an organism's development, such as female puberty, can have profound effects.

'I have enormous faith that given proper information, consumers will make good decisions and even spend more money on food. It's what you value. If you value food produced in a way that doesn't harm the environment, doesn't harm your own health, you can afford it.'
-Michael Pollan
The other concern is for the environment. All these things are connected. You don't just give an animal a hormone and that's the end of it. It ends up in their waste, and eventually ends up in the water supply. We're finding evidence that all the hormones we're putting into the water - and this goes for human birth-control pills as well, which is a similar hormone - have had an impact on male reproductivity, caused abnormalities in fish and in frogs, and more. There are clear environmental effects. And in this case, there is no good reason justifying the use of hormones. The system doesn't require it. If everybody refrained from using them, all factory farmers would all take the same hit in terms of speed of production. It would probably add a few pennies to the price of beef. But if everybody stopped, if McDonald's stopped taking meat that had hormone implants, everybody would win.

On the other hand, if it took longer for cows to get to slaughter, liver disease might kill them first.

Yeah. Well, everything's connected. It's very hard to pull a single thread out of this industrial meat system without jeopardizing the whole thing. Now, maybe we do want to jeopardize the whole thing, so we should keep pulling as many threads as we can.

The European meat industry has cut back on antibiotics and growth hormones already, right?

Yes, and they've had good success. They're not using hormones in Europe at all, and they are also cutting back heavily on antibiotics. They've had to change their production, however. In Sweden, where I believe they've banned antibiotics except for acute cases of disease, they've had to clean up their agriculture. They've had to go in between groups of chickens and completely sanitize the facilities. That doesn't seem like such a bad thing to do, but of course it raises the cost.

It's all about cheap food. Or to put it another way, it's all about the high cost of cheap food.

How can we create an environmentally sustainable and healthy meat production system? Do we have to get rid of factory farming entirely?

First, environmental and consumer groups need to keep putting pressure on both the government and the corporations. The upside of having a highly concentrated food system is that there are very powerful leverage points, and McDonald's is one of them. You get a company that's concerned about it's public image, and a relatively small amount of consumers or well-applied pressure can have an outsized effect on the whole system. Activists and people who care about this need to appreciate that as far as political acts go, telephoning or writing McDonald's - or Wendy's or Burger King - is a very productive one. McDonald's is in the business of pleasing consumers, while the Department of Agriculture is in the business of pleasing farmers and agribusiness companies.

I think we can have a better factory farming system, one that's smaller in scale and more humane in practice. You can ameliorate these conditions, but there's a certain point at which you have to decide whether you want to throw that system out or not. Realistically, we're not going to throw it out. We're too attached to cheap meat. What's likely is that we're going to have many different food chains in this country, and they'll be different prices and different quality.

So the poor will eat cheap meat and the wealthy will eat grassfed, hormone-free beef.

That's one scenario. Wealthy people have always eaten better than poor people, and I don't see that changing. That said, there is a trickle-down effect. When Wal-Mart gets into organic food, which they're rumored to be doing, they'll introduce organic food to a much larger segment of the country. A lot of social movements start as elite movements but trickle down in interesting ways. We will have alternatives, and consumers have enormous amount of power with their buying dollars when alternatives exist. But that takes good labeling - the more information you have the better. I have enormous faith that given proper information, consumers will make good decisions and even spend more money on food. It's really what you value. If you value food that's produced in a way that doesn't harm the environment, doesn't harm your own health, you can afford it.

You know, I still have trouble convincing myself to buy a chicken that costs $15 versus one that costs $4, even though I know the $15 one has had a better life, did not exact as much from the environment, and that in turn the farmer is also having a better lifestyle. It's very hard to justify that expensive chicken, but we need to learn how to do that.

You don't buy supermarket beef anymore at all?

No, I stopped buying industrial beef a while ago. I mean, if someone serves it to me at dinner, I'll eat it, I'm not one of these people who says, "No way, do you know what's in that?" Although I'm moving to Berkeley, a community where I hear you're allowed to do that.


More information:

"Power Steer," Michael Pollan's influential cover story from the March 31, 2002, New York Times Magazine

"McDonald's Asks Meat Suppliers to Stop Using Antibiotics," Washington Post, June 19, 2003,

"Noted science writer Michael Pollan appointed to UC Berkeley journalism school," UC Berkeley press release, December 6, 2002