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12-Piece McNuggets, Hold the Antibiotics

McDonald’s just promised to serve us antibiotic-free chicken. Is its commitment credible?

McDonalds wants out of the antibiotics business. Today, the fast-food chain announced plans to eliminate antibiotics from chicken in its U.S. restaurants and released a “Global Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship.” Here’s what you need to know.

There are nuggets of good news.

McDonald’s says that within two years, chicken served in its 14,000 U.S. restaurants will be free of antibiotics important to human medicine. That statement contains several qualifiers (more on those later), but it’s still very big news, even if you tend to grimace at the thought of eating fast food.

Although famous for its burgers, McDonald’s sells more chicken than beef—even more than KFC, the U.S. fast-food chain most closely identified with poultry. In fact, McDonald’s business is so important to Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest chicken producer, that Tyson developed a new breed of chicken specifically for sale beneath the golden arches. In other words, as goes McDonald’s, so goes the U.S. chicken industry. That’s why this announcement is significant—because McDonald’s market power alone could be enough to force the unnecessary use of antibiotics out of chicken farming.

Between 15 million and 32 million pounds of antibiotics are sold for use in livestock annually, depending on whom you listen to. No matter which number you choose, though, it’s far more than the amount used in human medicine. (About 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the country are given to farm animals.) More importantly, the antibiotics are often administered at subtherapeutic doses, which means the concentration is too low to kill off pathogens living in the animals’ bodies. Constant exposure to nonlethal doses gives microbes an opportunity to develop defenses—that’s basic evolutionary theory. And there’s plenty of evidence that animals can pass these antibiotic-resistant microbes to people. Take, for example, the outbreak of resistant Salmonella traced to Foster Farms chicken in 2013. McDonald’s actions could slow the development of antibiotic resistance.

What about those Samurai pork burgers?

McDonald’s says little of substance about the use of antibiotics in beef, pork, and chicken served outside the United States. In accord with recommendations of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the company says it will continue to prohibit the use of antibiotics in all its animals for purposes of growth promotion. It will still use them, however, for disease prevention.

That is an illusory distinction. The dosage and schedule of many antibiotics for disease prevention in livestock is effectively identical to that of growth promotion. You can call it whatever you like—disease prevention or growth promotion—but the name doesn’t change the fact that those courses of antibiotics encourage the development of drug-resistant pathogens.

McDonald’s doesn’t raise its own chickens, so a third-party verification system to ensure that suppliers are complying will be crucial. As Chipotle learned earlier this year, suppliers can sometimes run afoul of the rules.

It’s also not clear how McDonald’s will deal with smaller suppliers. While the company buys most of its meat from large farms under long-term contracts, it buys a substantial portion of its products on the spot market. Policing the use of antibiotics in these occasional transactions is much more difficult.

Why is Ronald doing this?

McDonald’s business is suffering. Revenue dropped 2.4 percent between 2013 and 2014, and same-store sales have been falling steadily since early 2012. The market is clearly shifting toward companies that offer foods that consumers perceive as fresher and healthier. With its commitment to “Food with Integrity,” Chipotle’s revenues have been growing at a 10 percent annual clip while those of McDonald’s have fallen. Several years ago, Chick-Fil-A surged past McDonald’s in same-store sales, and Panera is creeping up on them.

Over the past year, McDonald’s has taken a series of steps to combat its reputation for serving low-quality frankenfood. In September, the company released videos explaining how its McNuggets and McRibs are made. In a clumsy attempt to ingratiate itself with Chipotle fans, McDonald’s started offering guacamole last May. The company’s flailings are so obvious that “How to Save McDonald’s” articles have become their own journalistic beat. Almost all the writers suggest serving better-tasting, healthier food. What a concept.

What will the new CEO serve up?

Englishman Steve Easterbrook began his shift as McDonald’s chief executive officer this week. He previously led the restaurant’s U.K. branches, where he made hay confronting the company’s tattered image as a bad employer and purveyor of junk food.

Most relevantly, Easterbrook committed McDonald’s restaurants in the U.K. to serving only coffee from farms certified by the Rainforest Alliance. Easterbrook promised that the chain would serve coffee that “doesn’t cost the earth and benefits coffee growers, their communities, and the environment.” The company credits him with turning around its U.K. business with these sorts of policies. Here’s hoping the strategy works in the United States. Because the environment deserves a break today.

Further reading:
NRDC’s Jonathan Kaplan on the new McDonald’s CEO
Beth Kowitt in Fortune on whether McDonald’s can “get its mojo back”
Maryn McKenna in Wired on why the FDA’s voluntary antibiotic strategy won’t work


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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