McDonald's USA commits to chicken without antibiotics important in human medicine

The battle between humans and antibiotic resistant bacteria shifted favorably toward the humans today as McDonald's USA announced a commitment to end reliance on medically important antibiotics in it chicken supply chains. That is good news for McDonald's customers and anyone else who might someday need an effective antibiotic.

I blogged last week that McDonald's new CEO Steve Easterbrook was uniquely positioned to help save modern medicine from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistance results from the overuse of antibiotics, both in human medicine and in raising animals for food. The latter accounts for about 80% of all antibiotics sold in the US. Livestock producers often use antibiotics to help animals grow faster or survive crowded, stressful, unsanitary confinement conditions. When these antibiotics are used again and again, some bacteria survive, multiply and spread to threaten people.

NRDC and a long list of leading public interest organizations, health experts and medical associations have long called for ending the livestock industry's reliance on these precious medicines so they will continue to work for us and our children when we need them.

While McDonald's can't solve this problem all by itself, today's news could have a transformative impact in changing antibiotic use practices in the poultry sector. McDonald's alone sells 1.5-2% of all beef sold in most countries. In 2012, the New York Times reported that the company sells even more chicken than beef. As the world's largest and most iconic restaurant chain, McDonald's announcement sends a tsunami of a market signal, putting antibiotic-reliant producers of chickens on notice that times are changing.

Unfortunately, the company also published a disappointing "Global Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Food Animals" that sadly does little to improve the company's 2003 policy. While it looks like McDonald's invested quite a bit effort in developing it, the policy contains a giant loophole: Use of medically important antibiotics is allowed for "disease prevention" with no real limit on how much or how often these drugs can be administered. That's the same loophole that undermines FDA's current voluntary guidelines. McDonald's spokespeople described the "Global Vision" to NRDC as a "framework" for guiding more specific initiatives in different regions. That doesn't bode well for getting all routine uses of antibiotics out of their global supply chains.

Here in the U.S., McDonald's USA made a much meatier commitment to phase out use of medically important antibiotics for raising the chickens served in its 14,000 US restaurants within two years. That's a big deal. Sick birds will be treated with antibiotics, but not sold in company restaurants. Ionophores, which are technically antibiotics, will continue to be used to raise McDonalds' chickens. However, ionophores are not used for treating people and there's little evidence that they contribute to the problem of antibiotic resistance in human medicine. So getting rid of medically important antibiotics, while keeping some ionophores, is a great deal from a public health perspective.

Not mentioned in the McDonald's press release, but important to NRDC and our allies, McDonald's spokepeople also told NRDC that the company has plans to verify its new antibiotic stewardship policy for poultry using USDA's Process Verified Program.

Over the last few years, financial analysts have pointed to some sagging of the golden arches due to increased competition and brand "identity crisis." Investing in healthier, more responsibly-produced meat sure seems like a golden opportunity to win back customers and reputation. To capitalize on this opportunity, McDonald's will need to get rid of loopholes in their global antibiotics stewardship policy and follow their own example on sourcing chicken raised without the antibiotics that are important for humans.