McDonald’s To Use Chickens Raised Without Controversial Antibiotics

Last week we expressed hope that new McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook would do more than pay lip service to concerns about over-use of medically important antibiotics in farm animals, and today there appears to be some not-bad news coming out of the Golden Arches. The fast food mega-chain says it will only source chickens raised without the use of antibiotics that are important to humans and will offer milk that doesn’t contain artificial growth hormone.

“Our customers want food that they feel great about eating,” explains McDonald’s U.S President Mike Andres in a statement, “all the way from the farm to the restaurant – and these moves take a step toward better delivering on those expectations.”

Antibiotics are commonly added to animal feed, primarily for their growth-promoting effects. While this is good for farmers, scientists and public health advocates have long warned that over-use of antibiotics — especially those deemed medically important to humans — can engender the development and spread of drug-resistant pathogens.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 2 million people in America become ill with drug-resistant infections every year; about 430,000 of them from food-borne bacteria.

McDonald’s restaurants buy a significant chunk of chicken raised in the U.S. It joins the ranks of other chain eateries like Chipotle, Panera, and Chick fil-A that have either already stopped sourcing chickens raised on medically important antibiotics or are in the process of phasing those birds out.

Additionally, two of the country’s biggest poultry companies — Perdue and Tyson — have each agreed to curb antibiotic use in their birds.

“McDonald’s believes that any animals that become ill deserve appropriate veterinary care and our suppliers will continue to treat poultry with prescribed antibiotics, and then they will no longer be included in our food supply,” said Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America Supply Chain.

The news is being welcomed by advocates who have called for reductions in the use of antibiotics in farm animals, which currently account for around 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S.

The group Keep Antibiotics Working labels McDonald’s decision an important first step.

“While we know that change won’t happen overnight, we’re committed to working with the company as it moves forward with its implementation plan,” reads a statement from KAW senior analyst Steve Roach. “Antibiotic resistance is an urgent public health threat and the fast food industry has an important role to play in driving change, especially given the inability of Congress to address pressing problems and the weak response from the regulatory agencies.”

The Natural Resource Defense Counsel’s Jonathan Kaplan writes that, “The battle between humans and antibiotic resistant bacteria shifted favorably toward the humans today,” and the fast food giant’s decision is “good news for McDonald’s customers and anyone else who might someday need an effective antibiotic.”

Caroline Smith DeWaal, Food Safety Director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest believes the McDonald’s policy change “should have major reverberations throughout the meat and poultry industry” and that it “should inspire regulators to prohibit the overuse of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture altogether.”

DeWaal and other advocates have also expressed hope that McDonald’s will ultimately expand the antibiotics policy to cover the beef and pork it sources.

The second announcement from today involves milk from cows treated with the artificial growth hormone rbST.

The company contends that “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows,” but acknowledges that some customers simply don’t want it.