Matthew Wellington, US PIRG Education Fund’s Public Health Campaigns Director
Leslie Samuelrich, President of Green Century Capital Management
Few other companies on earth shape our food system more than McDonald’s. The fast food giant is the largest purchaser of beef and potatoes in the world. It has its fingers in the food operations of nearly every country. With that kind of clout, McDonald’s could influence the food industry to become more sustainable and better for the environment, our health and farm animals. We believe the company isn’t living up to that potential. Even worse, it’s not living up to its promises.
U.S. PIRG Education Fund and PIRG’s affiliated mutual fund company Green Century Capital Management, have been pressuring McDonald’s about environmental and public health issues for several years. Now, we’re working to hold McDonald’s accountable to its promises to improve factory farming conditions and reduce antibiotic use in the beef it buys.
Renowned activist investor Carl Icahn recently nominated Leslie (Green Century’s° president) to McDonald’s Board of Directors to highlight the company’s failure to fulfill its commitment to phase out the use of gestation crates for pregnant pigs by 2022.
Unfortunately, the corporation’s broken promise on gestation crates is not its only unfulfilled pledge. McDonald’s also has not followed through on its promise to set targets for reducing the use of medically important antibiotics in its beef supply. Antibiotic overuse in food animals has driven the rise of “superbugs,” antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause infections that are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat. Factory farms, where practices often involve cramming animals into unsanitary, overcrowded, and stressful conditions, continue to expand. On top of the corresponding increases in gestation crates and routine antibiotic usage, factory farming practices may also pollute our water and air.
McDonald’s first committed to reduce antibiotic use in its meat supply in 2003. Fast forward a dozen years later to 2015 and the company had still not taken meaningful action. U.S. PIRG Education Fund and its partner groups launched a consumer pressure campaign urging McDonald’s to take more significant steps to reduce antibiotic use in its supply chain. Only then did the company finally respond, committing to and quickly following through on a pledge to source only chicken raised without any medically important antibiotics.
McDonald’s action on chicken spurred a series of commitments from other major restaurant chains, including Starbucks, KFC, and Jack in the Box, which US PIRG Education Fund and Green Century helped secure, and eventually led to the removal of medically important antibiotics from much of the chicken industry.
While the change in the chicken supply was positive, the beef industry now accounts for a higher percentage — 41 percent — of the medically important antibiotics sold in the US for meat production. As the world’s largest beef buyer, McDonald’s is in a unique position to influence how beef producers use our life-saving drugs. For a little while, it looked as if the company was going to do just that.
After a year-long campaign involving media stories, grassroots pressure and the threat of a shareholder resolution urging McDonald’s to change its policies, the company pledged in 2018 to set targets for reducing the use of medically important antibiotics across much of its global beef supply chain by the end of 2020. It was a major annnouncement, a chink in the formidable armor of the beef industry. We applauded the move, and the company gained widespread praise in the media as a result.
But 2020 has come and gone, and McDonald’s has still not followed through with its commitment to set reduction targets. This lack of strong governance at the board level exposes McDonald’s to reputational risks and a loss of confidence from its consumers. It can not be an accepted practice at McDonald’s — or any company — to bask in the praise only to abandon it when the TV cameras are turned off, especially when the efficacy of our life-saving medicines are on the line.
Approximately 1.2 million people died in 2019 from infections that available antibiotics could not treat. More and more evidence links antibiotic overuse on farms to deadly infections in people. McDonald’s cannot delay action any longer on reducing antibiotic use in its beef supply chain.
About Green Century Capital Management
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Director, Public Health Campaigns, PIRG
Matt directs PIRG's public health campaigns, including campaigns to address the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections by stopping the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and to reverse the alarming increase in teen nicotine addiction by banning tobacco products marketed to kids. Matt is an avid outdoorsman and loves to play the drums and harmonica.