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McDonalds to phase out chicken raised with certain antibiotics

Chicken McNuggets may never be the same--starting in two years.
Oak Brook-based McDonald’s announced a new policy Wednesday that would ban chickens raised using antibiotics that are vital to treating infections in humans.

The chain’s suppliers can still treat sick animals with antibiotics, but that meat can’t end up in McDonald’s food supply, according to the policy. 

Health and environmental groups have been urging the world’s largest fast food chain to make the move for almost two years. Among them is the Natural Resources Defense Council whose Food and Agriculture director Jonathan Kaplan had mixed feelings about the announcement.

“That’s great news and I think its a game changer for the poultry industry here in the U.S.,” he said. “We are still concerned about [McDonald’s] global policy that has a loophole that could allow the routine use of antibiotics to continue.”

The move would affect the roughly 14,000 stores in the U.S. but not the 22,000 abroad. Additionally, it does not affect the chain’s beef and pork suppliers. 

Still, the company’s thinking has evolved since it first released a policy on antibiotics in 2003. In its new Global Vision on Antibiotic Stewardship document McDonald’s says “As the body of scientific evidence grows and scientific consensus emerges, we recognize the importance of continuing to evolve our position on antimicrobial usage.”

Indeed, the world’s medical community now agrees that the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine, as well as meat production, has contributed to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria and infections that kill 23,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When small regular doses of antibiotics are administered to animals--largely for growth promotion and disease prevention--some weak bacteria die, but stronger bacteria can survive, thrive and evolve into “superbugs” that can’t be treated with the drugs.

(J.smith Wikimedia Commons)
Although Chik-Fil-A and Chipotle have already committed to sourcing meat raised without antibiotics, McDonalds is the first of the large chains to raise its antibiotics standards.

The move comes just three days after McDonald’s new CEO Steve Easterbrook assumed leadership of the company, and just five months after the arrival of Mike Andres who heads the chain’s U.S. division. 

Wednesday Andres, released a statement saying  “Our customers want food that they feel great about eating... and these moves take a step toward better delivering on those expectations.”

A coalition of health advocates called Keep Antibiotics Working applauded the move today and noted that it had been in talks with McDonald’s on the issue since 2003.

Last month, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and its Illinois chapter, launched a campaign to urge the chain to get antibiotics out of its meat production. And just yesterday, Illinois PIRG’s Dev Gowda, says he dropped off a petition in Oak Brook with 30,000 signatures to that effect. Still, he said the move took him completely by surprise. He now hopes the chain will follow suit with its beef and pork supplies.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who is the only microbiologist in Congress, praised the move and chalked it up to the power of pressure from the “educated” consumer.  Still, she said that the country needs “enforceable and verifiable limits on antibiotic use.” 

She has often sponsored House legislation to restrict the use of all medically important antibiotics in livestock production. Another bill in the Senate aims to track where and how antibiotics are being used in the U.S. Estimates indicate that 70 to 80 percent of antibiotics purchased in the U.S. are currently used in meat production alone.

In December 2013 the US Food and Drug Administration issued guidance to pharmaceutical companies asking them to voluntarily stop labeling and selling the drugs exclusively for “growth promotion.” 

Health advocates complain that voluntary guidance to end growth promotion uses is too weak. They worry that producers will continue to use the same drugs for “disease prevention” which they feel only enables farmers to raise animals in crowded unsanitary conditions.


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