Fast-food giant McDonald’s announced today that it will cease buying chicken raised with the routine use of most antibiotics, a move that seems certain to reframe the contentious debate about agriculture’s use of the increasingly precious drugs. The company set a deadline of two years to make chicken in its 14,000 US locations substantially antibiotic-free.
The announcement instantly makes McDonald’s the largest company by far to use its buying power to change how livestock are raised. Its 25 million US customers a day dwarf those at Chipotle Mexican Grill, which pioneered fast food using antibiotic-free meat, and also at Chick-fil-A, which announced a year ago that it would move to antibiotic-free chicken in five years.
McDonald’s new policy doesn’t solve the farm-antibiotics problem. The company is making the move only for chicken, not for beef or pork (though chicken is already the meat Americans eat the most). And the policy has important caveats. But since McDonald’s is the largest food-service buyer of chicken in America, this can’t help but affect other restaurants, and production of other meats.
In a phone interview, Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America Supply Chain, said the company made the move because customers have been asking for it. “This about meaningful action that is important to our customers,” she said. “We’re happy to be able to achieve this. This is not something new; we had our first antibiotic policy in place back in 2003, so it’s the evolution of a journey we have been on for some time.”
The reason this announcement is so important is that, for decades, researchers have been linking the use of antibiotics in livestock-raising (and to a lesser extent in fish farming and fruit production) to the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. Multiple pieces of research show that low-dose antibiotic use on farms — use that doesn’t cure animal illness, but promotes growth and prevents infections — creates resistant bacteria that move off farm properties in water, dust and the meat that animals become. Those bacteria infect humans directly — via meat or because the bacteria contaminate a home or restaurant cooking surface — and they pass their resistance DNA to other bacteria as well.
Antibiotic resistance is a global crisis, as serious as terrorism according to some government officials; it kills an estimated 700,000 people per year now, and that toll is expected to go into millions a year in a few decades. (Long archive of stories here.) Those deaths happen because the antibiotics used for livestock are the same ones used against human diseases — so when the overuse on farms makes bacteria resistant to them, the drugs don’t work for human infections either.
And that leads to the most important caveat in today’s announcement. McDonald’s says it will phase out use of only “medically important” antibiotics, that is, ones that are crucial for deadly infections. It plans to continue to use a class of antibiotics called ionophores, which in chickens are used mostly to prevent a parasitic disease called coccidiosis. In the company statement, Gross says: “If fewer chickens get sick, then fewer chickens need to be treated with antibiotics that are important in human medicine. We believe this is an essential balance.”
“Actually, this doesn’t bother me,” Dr. Gail Hansen, a veterinarian with the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit that campaigns for farm-antibiotic reform, said by phone. “The ionophores are not used in people, and their use in animals doesn’t provoke cross-resistance to antibiotics used in humans. They allow farmers to treat their animals without creating the kind of antibiotic resistance that we have a problem with.”
The US Food and Drug Administration is in the midst of a 3-year attempt to control farm-antibiotic use by asking for a voluntary ban on growth promoters, low-dose antibiotics used primarily to get animals fat faster than they would without the drugs. Ionophores are allowed under the FDA policy, and also (for now) under the growth-promoter ban that has existed in Europe since 2006. So by choosing to keep ionophores, McDonalds is in line with government policies — but it hasn’t gone as far as chicken company Perdue Farms, which ruled out ionophores last year for part of its flocks. (Gross said Perdue is not a McDonald’s supplier.)
In our chat, Gross said that birds that become sick on farms supplying McDonald’s can be treated with antibiotics to cure them, though McDonald’s won’t buy those birds afterward. She added the policy change applies only to McDonald’s US, not to locations in Europe (where government antibiotic rules are more strict) or Asia (where they are nonexistent). “We are all aligned on our philosophy on antibiotic use,” she said, ” but other areas of the world have different regulations and requirements, and also have different customer expectations.” (The company simultaneously released an “antimicrobial stewardship” statement.)
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the longtime champion of a bill that would restrict medically important antibiotics to human medicine, said: “Today’s announcement from McDonald’s is encouraging, but until there is an enforceable, verifiable limit on agricultural antibiotic use, we will have no way to verify whether chicken raised on medically important antibiotics has been truly phased out… This is proof that when an enlightened public demands change, companies respond.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) who recently introduced a similar bill in the Senate, added, “McDonald’s announcement demonstrates that businesses can be effective partners in ensuring antibiotic use in animals does not affect human health.”
A number of nonprofits have been pressing agriculture and big food businesses to switch to antibiotic-free meat, and they also praised the move:
US PIRG: “A super-sized change for McDonald’s, and we’re lovin’ it.”
Center for Food Safety: “Setting the bar for the entire fast food industry.”
Center for Science in the Public Interest: “Excellent news for consumers… should have major reverberations throughout the meat and poultry industry.”
Keep Antibiotics Working: “While we know that change won’t happen overnight, we’re committed to working with the company as it moves forward.”
Natural Resources Defense Council: “A landmark announcement in the fight to keep life-saving antibiotics working for us and our children.”