McDonald’s Updated Antibiotics Policy Is an Optical Illusion
Two years after failing to meet the timelines of its own 2018 policy to address antibiotic overuse in beef, McDonald’s decided to quietly issue an update that takes the company further away from its goals.
Two years after failing to meet the timelines of its own 2018 policy to address antibiotic overuse in beef, McDonald’s decided to quietly issue an update that takes the company further away from its purported goals of fostering antibiotic stewardship across its vast beef supply chain. This is especially disappointing given that McDonald’s is the largest beef buyer in the world and that the health threat posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria continues unabated. Experts estimate that antibiotic resistant infections directly lead to at least 1.3 millions global deaths annually.
The new McDonald’s policy encourages U.S. suppliers to drastically lower beef antibiotic use intensity for U.S. suppliers to 50 mg/kg of animal. If achieved, this would lead to significant improvements in antibiotic stewardship since U.S. cattle production as a whole uses antibiotics at a rate of roughly 160 mg/kg. Unfortunately, the McDonald’s approach is little more than a faint signal to industry because it fails to include a detailed implementation plan or a time-bound completion date to ensure accountability across its supply chain. This means that the public has no way of knowing if these ambitious targets will actually be met by the U.S. beef industry and on what time frame.
This latest update from McDonald’s builds on a March 2022 version of the policy that moved the company farther from its original goals of ratcheting down antibiotic use in its beef supplies. Back in 2018, McDonald’s committed to an ambitious project of capturing antibiotic use baseline data across 10 target markets with a promise of publicizing reduction targets for producers two years later. The COVID pandemic created understandable delays yet it also seems that the company took advantage of that difficult moment to backtrack on its promises and shift away from concrete reductions toward these “responsible use” targets. While there was once reason to hope that McDonald’s took antibiotic resistance seriously enough to push for meaningful change in its supply chains, today’s plans questions whether the burger giant will make any dent in the rampant antibiotic overuse of the U.S. beef industry.
This is especially disappointing because the building blocks for a strong antibiotic use policy remain in this latest iteration from McDonald’s:
- Habitual (called “routine” in prior versions) use is not permitted in most circumstances;
- High priority critically important antibiotics (HPCIAs) are established as the last drugs of choice, to be avoided unless absolutely necessary; and
- Critically important antibiotics are for the most part disallowed for control or treatment purposes.
McDonald’s does deserve credit for attempting to gather data and the aggressive responsible use targets it has recommended to its beef producers, especially given that the U.S. FDA remains determined to ignore the need for both as federal policy interventions. I’m holding out hope that, in 2023, the company will once again rethink its plans and set firm time commitments for its suppliers to meet these newly set targets. Only then will they be considered “responsible”.