A health scare over school lunches is brewing. The driving forces behind the junk science-fueled scare are the usual suspects -- anti-meat and environmental activist groups, and politicians who do the groups' bidding.

I'm not going to criticize the groups and their politicians too much, though. Scaring the public in hopes of furthering their twisted agenda just seems to be what they do regardless of facts and any criticism directed their way. I will, however, blame a corporation that, ironically, isn't even involved with school lunch programs -- McDonald's.

For years now, activist groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (search), Union of Concerned Scientists (search), Natural Resources Defense Council (search) and others have been trying to foment a scare about the use of antibiotics in farm animals. The groups have allied themselves under the banner of the Keep Antibiotics Working Campaign (search) -- trying to give the impression that they're concerned about a rise in bacterial resistance to antibiotics used to treat humans.

This is, of course, utterly misleading.

To the extent there has been a rise in bacterial resistance to antibiotics (search) used to treat humans, this is overwhelmingly due to the decades-old tendency of physicians to over-prescribe antibiotics. Despite this well-known cause of the antibiotic resistance problem, the Keep Antibiotics Working Campaign focuses solely on the use of antibiotics in farm animals (search) -- a practice not persuasively linked to antibiotic resistance. 

The simple facts are that the members of the campaign don't like animals being raised for human consumption, they don't like the farmers who raise the animals and they don't like the pharmaceutical companies that help the farmers. Having little traction with scientists, the activists necessarily have turned to like-minded politicians to advance their cause -- Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Earlier this year, Sen. Clinton and Rep. Brown wrote to the secretary of agriculture "inquiring" about the Department of Agriculture's plans to implement some language in a Senate-House conference report -- not a law, just some legislative commentary -- "strongly encouraging the Secretary to work to ensure that no chicken purchased for the School Lunch Program contains fluoroquinolones (search) [a class of antibiotics used on farm animals], including the initiation of a policy to not purchase chickens for these programs from companies that do not have a stated policy that they do not use fluoroquinolones in their chickens." 

Not surprisingly, Sen. Clinton and Rep. Brown did not -- because they could not -- reference any scientific basis for their requested ban on chickens treated with fluoroquinolones. They did, however, cite as precedent a recent announcement by McDonald's that the fast-food purveyor would not accept meat from suppliers who treated their chickens with fluoroquinolones. 

McDonald's didn't have a scientific basis for its decision either, citing instead its desire to cooperate with the activist group Environmental Defense (search) (part of the Keep Antibiotics Working Campaign) and its "commitment to social responsibility" (whatever that is). But that's not even the most outrageous part of the farce. Campylobacter (search), the target bacteria for fluoroquinolones, is killed by freezing. McDonald's doesn't sell fresh chicken -- only frozen chicken. So there's no chance that fluoroquinolone-resistant campylobacter could be passed along to consumers via McDonald's chicken offerings.

But wait, there's more. A report issued last year by the General Accounting Office on food-borne illness outbreaks related to school lunches indicated there was not a single outbreak of disease caused by campylobacter -- the bacteria that this whole debate is about. Moreover, even if there had been a school-lunch-associated campylobacter outbreak, fluoroquinolones-resistance wouldn't be an issue in any event since that class of antibiotics isn't generally used to treat children under 18 years of age.  

The only things accomplished by McDonald's decision to ban chickens treated with fluoroquinolones were the appeasement of activists, and becoming a bogus example in the Clinton-Brown letter to the USDA about school lunches. McDonald's management may want us to think that it was "socially responsible" by banning fluoroquinolone use by its meat suppliers. But its actions do nothing to solve a problem that doesn't even exist.  

It appears that McDonald's management, in its dubious quest for political correctness, hasn't given any of this any thought whatsoever. That, particularly as it contributes to the school lunch scare, is more "reprehensible" than "responsible."

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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