McDonald’s Dollar Menu McNuggets are still low-quality, factory-farmed, and supremely unhealthy, but soon at least, they’ll contain chicken raised without the use of human antibiotics. It announced yesterday that its 14,000 U.S. restaurants would phase out chicken treated with antibiotics used in human medicine in the next two years.
“The U.S. commitment on chicken is a really big deal,” says Sasha Stashwick, senior advocate for the food and agriculture program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “It’s not just the chicken that they buy, it’s the market signal that it sends to the rest of the industry, including chicken producers.” (McDonald’s hasn’t yet responded to a question about exactly how much chicken it buys, but with 27 million customers a day, it’s safe to say it’s a lot).
Today, the global overuse of antibiotics is driving the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a public health emergency that is responsible now for 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. In this country, the livestock industry is a major culprit: It accounts for about 80% of total antibiotic sales, and so pressure is increasing for the industry to curb its use.
McDonald’s is following other restaurants and meat buyers with its decision. Chipotle, Panera, Shake Shack, and Whole Foods already buy all antibiotic-free meat. But poultry suppliers have been leading the way in phasing out the use of antibiotics, which is one likely reason why McDonald’s isn’t buying antibiotic-free beef or pork yet, according to Stashwick. For example, Perdue Farms, the third largest U.S. chicken producer, says it’s now raising 95% of its birds without using antibiotics important to human medicine. Tyson, the largest, is also eliminating some antibiotic use. So as the antibiotic-free supply increases, it’s easier and cheaper for chicken buyers to make these decisions. Last year, for instance, Chik-Fil-A said it would move to antibiotic-free chicken within five years.
The announcement could also make business sense for McDonald’s, which is struggling with slumping sales and low appeal to younger, health-conscious eaters. A new CEO, Steve Easterbrook, formerly the company’s chief brand officer, took charge this year. Advocates are hoping he’ll look more seriously at a host of environmental and health issues in the company’s supply chain and menu (just don’t ask him about the low wages the company pays its workers). On antibiotics, however, they will be watching to make sure the chain verifies its claims to have taken human antibiotics out of chicken. McDonald’s will still use one antibiotic that is not used as a medicine for people.
The McDonald’s announcement is still mixed, however, NRDC says. The company also released a “Global Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Food Animals” that still allows its global suppliers to feed an unlimited amount of medically important antibiotics to animals for “disease prevention”–which means suppliers can treat all animals with antibiotics, rather than only sick animals. So this appears to be a major loophole on the path to phasing out antibiotics from its supply chain.
And there’s still a long way to go in ridding even U.S. meat supplies of antibiotics. Today, according to NRDC, antibiotic-free meat only accounts for roughly 5% of total meat sales. And the FDA’s guidelines on curbing farm animal use are mostly voluntary, so actions from large meat buyers like McDonald’s are needed to save the antibiotic supply.
“This can’t just be a niche product, and it can’t be just one segment of the industry. We really have to fix this across the board,” says Stashwick.