Here in the U.S., McDonald’s says its McNuggets are all already sourced from chickens raised without the use of controversial antibiotics. But the continued overuse of antibiotics in overseas farm animals — particularly in some developing nations where the practice is growing — also puts people worldwide at risk for contracting and spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So today, McDonald’s said it is expanding its antibiotic-free program on a global basis — but not right away.
In an update to its antibiotics policy released today, the world’s biggest name in fast food is finally acknowledging that drug-resistant pathogens are a global problem, and that using its size to source more antibiotic-free birds in the U.S. is just a start.
According to the company, the removal of antibiotics from the McDonald’s poultry process will begin in Jan. 2018. That’s when the U.S. and many of McDonald’s major international markets — Brazil, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Europe — will stop purchasing and using chickens raised with the use of certain, vital antibiotics.
McDonald’s customers in Australia and Russia will have until the end of 2019 to meet these same standards, while the remaining McDonald’s international markets have nearly a decade — until Jan. 2027 — to cut out these antibiotics from their chickens, though the company says it hopes to beat that deadline.
The precise antibiotics being banned by McDonald’s are those that the World Health Organization has deemed “Highest Priority Critically Important Antimicrobials” (HPCIA) — in other words, drugs that are needed to treat dangerous diseases and infections, and shouldn’t be used on farm animals just because the drugs help them put on weight faster.
Repeated use of antibiotics — particularly at a level below the dosage used for disease treatment — can and has encouraged the development of bacteria that is resistant to the drug. For example, a common disease like gonorrhea that used to be easily treated with penicillin, has become increasingly resistant to not only the original drugs used to treat the infection, but subsequent antibiotics.
“The widespread use of antibiotics on livestock that aren’t sick is contributing to a global public health crisis with potentially dire consequences,” says Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for our colleagues at Consumers Union. Halloran says that if McDonald’s plan — which should eventually include a policy on beef (more on that below) it “could be a total game-changer that could transform the marketplace given the company’s massive buying power.”
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 2 million Americans fall ill from drug-resistant bacteria each year, with some 23,000 dying annually as a result. While it’s not yet known exactly how many of these illnesses and deaths are directly linked to antibiotics overuse in livestock, nearly three-quarters of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to farm animals, largely for growth-promotion purposes.
Where’s the beef?
In addition to today’s chicken-related announcement, McDonald’s has reportedly informed a number of public health advocacy groups — including our colleagues at Consumers Union — that the company intends to eventually release a timeline for cutting down on antibiotic overuse in cows.
The switch to drug-free cattle is more time-consuming and expensive than making the switch for chickens. Your typical broiler chicken raised for use by a fast food chain reaches market size in a matter of weeks, while cows live for years before heading to the slaughterhouse. Additionally, cattle may be shifted between multiple owners during their lifetime, making it more difficult to track the use of antibiotics.
Even so, CU says that McDonald’s is planning to focus its eventual antibiotics policy primarily on meat suppliers from the 10 countries that supply 85% of the company’s beef.
“Antibiotic resistant bacteria don’t observe national boundaries,” said Halloran. “We commend McDonald’s for setting these goals and urge all fast food chains to use their market clout to protect public health before it’s too late.”