Will McDonald's Make 2018 the Year of the Cow?

The Lunar Year of the Rooster—and the last big “Year of the Chicken” for NRDC’s antibiotics campaign—is quickly coming to a close. Although the Chinese zodiac says we are welcoming in the Year of the Dog, advocates (like myself) who working to keep antibiotics working when sick people and animals need them look toward 2018 to become the year of the cow, and the pig.

Today, NRDC and a group of our allies delivered to Steve Easterbrook, CEO of McDonald’s, a powerful call to action to address antibiotic overuse in raising the beef and pork served at its restaurants. With over 70% of antibiotics important to human medicine in the United States sold for use on livestock—often to speed up growth or compensate for stressful, unsanitary living conditions—leading public health experts warn that ending overuse of antibiotics in food animal production is critical if we are to slow down the growing crisis of drug-resistant infections in people.

Back in 2015, McDonald’s helped set off of a powerful ripple effect in the fast food industry when it pledged to stop serving chicken raised with antibiotics important to human medicine in its U.S. restaurants. Just two years later, NRDC’s third annual Chain Reaction antibiotics scorecard showed that 14 of the top 25 restaurant chains in the U.S. now have similar policies in place.1 And NRDC now estimates that about half of the chicken industry has made some level of commitment to curb antibiotics overuse.

But action on chicken alone won’t be enough to keep the health threat of drug-resistant infections at bay. Signed by over eighty groups, the letter calls on the most iconic restaurant chain in the world to extend its previous commitments governing antibiotic use in chicken to the company’s beef and pork supplies. After all, recent FDA animal drug sales data show that chickens gobbled up just 6% of medically important antibiotics sold for livestock in the U.S. that year. Whereas cows and pigs are the real heavy users – combined, they account for a whopping 80% of medically important drug sales for animals.

It takes a whole lot of beef and pork to get Big Macs and Sausage McMuffins into the hands of hungry eaters. Recent estimates indicate that McDonald’s buys over 700 millions pounds of beef annually, making the company the biggest buyer of beef in the U.S. As evidenced by the rapid pace of improvement we’ve seen in the chicken industry in recent years—McDonald’s actions have a big impact on how the meat industry does business.

McDonald’s is on record saying that they plan to address antibiotics use in beef this year. That is promising, and we look forward to seeing what they do. But the company must not stop there—it has to also include its pork supply in its antibiotics stewardship plans.

1 Panera, Chipotle and Chick-fil-A had policies restricting antibiotics use for their chicken supplies prior to McDonald’s.