Big Macs are poised to join the 21st century.
As one of the first companies to end the use of medically important antibiotics in its chicken supply back in 2015, McDonald’s helped set off a ripple effect in the U.S. fast-food industry.
Today, the company took a big step forward that we hope will spark a similar wave of change in the beef industry. McDonald’s announced it will now address the problem in its iconic burger menu by requiring its beef suppliers to comply with a new antibiotic use reduction policy starting in 2021. Implementation will begin next year, with pilot projects in 10 global markets.
Details about how the McDonald’s plan will progress and be verified in coming years remain to be confirmed. These pieces will ensure that this policy’s promise is fully realized, and NRDC—which has been a stakeholder engaged on the policy since early 2018—will be following the pilot phase closely as it unfolds.
Nonetheless, this announcement is quite significant because the beef industry—in contrast to chicken—has taken very little action to address antibiotics overuse to date. That’s despite the fact that more medically important antibiotics are sold for use on cows than people. And 43 percent of medically important antibiotics sold to the U.S. livestock sector go to the beef industry—compared to only 6 percent for chicken. The vast majority of these drugs are routinely distributed en masse in feed or water—often to animals that are not sick to help them survive crowded and unsanitary conditions on industrial farms.
This practice contributes to the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and increases the risk of drug-resistant infections in humans. Conservatively, at least two million Americans are already infected with antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and at least 23,000 die as a direct result. Some experts contend that the numbers could be much, much higher. Leading medical experts warn that we must stop overuse of antibiotics in human medicine and animal agriculture, or else the life-saving drugs we rely on to treat common infections and enable medical procedures could increasingly stop working.
To avoid that fate, it is critical that overuse of these drugs be addressed in cattle production, where so many of them are bound. And when it comes to beef, few, if any, companies hold as much sway as McDonald’s. The company buys nearly 1.6 billion pounds of beef annually—making it one of the largest beef buyers in the world. So, when McDonald’s directs suppliers to cut back on the use of medically important drugs on cattle as soon as they arrive at a feedlot, it can have a major and positive impact on the antibiotic-resistance health crisis.
The new policy already sets the company apart from competitors as a leader on the issue, making it the first major burger chain—and by far the largest—to address antibiotics overuse in beef. McDonald's joins other fast-food companies like Chipotle and Panera in leading the way in reducing antibiotics—and leaves other major burger giants like Burger King and Wendy’s having to play catch up, as customers increasingly demand better meat.
Of course, much work remains during the critical pilot phase for McDonald’s to realize the full potential of the new policy. For instance, details on the 2020 reduction targets for medically important antibiotics will be critical as will integration of a third-party verification program to drive public confidence in outcomes.
NRDC and fellow advocates in the Antibiotics Off the Menu coalition have been calling on McDonald’s for more than a year to extend its antibiotics commitment on chicken to all meat it serves, especially its massive beef supply. (As I wrote in February, all eyes were on McDonald’s to make 2018 the “Year of the Cow.”) Our collective hopes were raised in October, when in response to the release of our fourth annual fast-food antibiotics scorecard—Chain Reaction IV: Burger Edition—the company publicly promised to release a global antibiotics use policy by the end of the year.
Today, this pledge was honored, and while strong implementation and verification will be crucial to its success, the company’s new promise is worthy of both attention and praise. As policy implementation unfolds, we will be watching with great interest.
Even as a wave of reform took hold in the chicken industry, the U.S. beef industry has flown under the radar on this issue for far too long. In the ongoing fight to end antibiotic overuse, this step up from McDonald’s sends a clear message that business as usual will no longer be acceptable.