Today, the world’s biggest restaurant chain took a modest step forward in the fight against antibiotic resistance with its release of a new global chicken policy, as well as an update to the company’s Global Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Food Animals.
In 2015, McDonald's announcement to eliminate all antibiotics important for human medicine in its US poultry supply chains had a seismic impact, helping to steer the US poultry industry away from these drugs. Today the restaurant chain announced plans to eliminate the use of a much more limited group of antibiotics—the subset of highest priority antibiotics that are critically important human medicine, as deemed by the World Health Organization (WHO)—in its chicken supply chain outside of US and Canada.
There’s no doubt that phasing out livestock uses of these uniquely critical medicines is a high priority and NRDC commends McDonald's for continuing to expand its stewardship effort. However, today’s news implies that the majority of antibiotics important for human medicine may remain in use by McDonald’s global suppliers abroad, even though poultry producers in the US and elsewhere have demonstrated that eliminating all medically important antibiotics is effective and economically viable. Advocates, including NRDC, have longed called on companies to restrict routine uses of medically-important antibiotics on animals that are not sick, instead reserving these precious drugs for treatment and disease control purposes.
The continued use of medically important antibiotics inevitably contributes to rising rates of antibiotic resistance, threatening the future efficacy of antibiotics needed for human medicine. Restricting use of one class of medically important drugs does not necessarily mean that this class will be protected due to genetic cross-resistance. Bacteria often carry multiple resistance genes to different antibiotics, on bits of DNA that are physically linked. This linkage means that continuing to expose chickens to some antibiotics of medical importance can increase the selection for bacteria that are resistant to other “highest priority” antibiotics as well, despite the fact the latter might no longer be used in chicken production.
McDonald’s also posted an updated version of its Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship (VAS)—which applies to McDonald’s global meat supply chain—and moves the needle forward by setting goals for eliminating the use of medically important antibiotics for routine disease prevention, an important objective that was missing in its 2015 document. We look forward to learning more about how McDonald’s will apply this vision. What really matters, however, is how McDonald’s uses the Vision's goals to set clear, timebound, and verifiable policies for its beef, pork and chicken suppliers.
McDonald's has played a leadership role in promoting antibiotic stewardship. We hope the company will continue to be a leader to save these precious medicines.