McDonalds' new CEO could help humans win the war against antibiotic resistant bacteria

McDonalds' freshly appointed CEO, Steve Easterbrook, starts his new job on Monday. His appointment comes at a time when the golden arches are sagging. Sales are down and according to Fortune magazine, "the company faces one heck of an identity crisis." But this crisis could spell opportunity. It's a perfect moment for the legendary restaurant chain to establish itself as a global leader in promoting healthier, antibiotic-free meat production.

Bacteria are becoming resistant to the same antibiotics that we humans rely on to knock out infections and make serious medical procedures like surgeries and cancer treatments possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified antibiotic resistance as one of the top five health threats facing the nation.

When antibiotics are used again and again, some bacteria become resistant, multiply and spread. While overuse of antibiotics in human medicine is a big part of the problem, vast amounts of antibiotics are also used in livestock production. About 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are sold for livestock use, often to make animals grow faster or help them survive crowded, stressful and unsanitary confinement conditions.

To its credit, McDonalds has acknowledged this imperative and is now considering revisions to its global policy on antibiotic use. Its current policy prohibits use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster, but is vague on the problem of routine antibiotic use for disease prevention.

According to GreenBiz, McDonalds alone sells 1.5-2% of all beef sold in most countries. In 2012, the New York Times reported that McDonalds sells even more chicken than beef. Combined, that's an incredible amount of meat. Unfortunately, because so little information about antibiotics use in the livestock industry is made public, we don't know much about specific antibiotic use practices in McDonalds' meat supply chains. But if McDonalds is sourcing meat raised under typical livestock production practices, then McDonalds could, all by itself, make an important dent in antibiotic use and set the bar for the rest of the fast food industry.

Sitting at the controls of that enormous supply chain, Mr. Easterbrook now has the opportunity to adopt a progressive antibiotics stewardship program that would reverberate through all corners of the global meat and poultry industry and truly set his company apart from the fast food pack. Major livestock producers are already proving this is doable. Perdue, the nation's third largest poultry producer, reports that it is already raising 95% of its flock without medically important antibiotics. Other food companies, including Chipotle, Elevation Burger, Panera Bread, Shake Shack and Chik-fil-A either already offer antibiotic-free meat and poultry options or have committed to doing so. These mainstream companies are tapping into growing consumer demand for healthier, safer and more sustainable meat choices (with up-and-coming Millennials leading the way). They seem to be enjoying growth and brand success that McDonalds must envy.

This is a pivotal moment in the history of America's most iconic restaurant. McDonalds could shift to healthier, drug-free meat production practices and help ensure that our kids and grandkids will have effective antibiotics when they need them. I'm sure that millions of McDonalds customers would also appreciate the commitment. Let's see the Big Mac and the Chicken McNugget become instruments for saving modern medicine as we know it.

About the Authors

Jonathan Kaplan

Director, Food & Agriculture program

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