CHICAGO—On Dec. 11, 2018, McDonald’s released a new policy that commits the company to restricting medically important antibiotic use in its beef supply chain. As the largest beef purchaser in the United States, McDonald’s new commitment could spark an industry-wide change to help keep antibiotics effective.
The company will monitor antibiotic use in its top ten beef sourcing markets and set reduction targets for medically important antibiotic use by the end of 2020. Principles in the policy include restricting the routine use of the drugs to prevent disease, a practice that the World Health Organization recommends ending because it breeds antibiotic resistant bacteria.
“The Golden Arches just raised the bar for responsible antibiotic use in meat production. We can’t afford to misuse these precious medicines. Otherwise, we risk losing our ability to treat life-threatening infections," said Matthew Wellington, director of U.S. PIRG’s campaign to stop the overuse of antibiotics. “McDonald’s new commitment is a promising step forward that will help preserve antibiotics for the future, and that’s something we should all be happy about.”
McDonald’s action on antibiotics fits with the company’s commitment to use its size for good, though the burger chain needed some persuading. In 2015, U.S. PIRG and the Antibiotics off the Menu coalition started to push McDonald’s to phase routine antibiotic use out of its meat supply chain. Shortly thereafter, McDonald’s took an important step forward by transitioning away from purchasing chicken raised on medically important antibiotics. In August 2017, McDonald’s released a new Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship, which included important objectives such as cutting routine antibiotic use from its entire meat supply. However, the company did not attach any timeline for making that vision a reality at that time.
“It’s great that McDonald’s is joining the effort to stop wasting life-saving antibiotics on healthy livestock, so that we can preserve them for patients who need them,” said Brad Spellberg, M.D., chief medical officer, LAC+USC Medical Center.*
Since January 2018, U.S. PIRG and its partners have called on McDonald’s to phase routine antibiotics out of its beef and pork supply chains as well. More than 80 international stakeholders—including health, environmental and consumer groups—have called on the chain to act. Several of those groups delivered more than 150,000 petition signatures to McDonald’s headquarters during its annual shareholder meeting in May, demonstrating widespread consumer support.
In October 2018, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and its coalition partners held an event outside of McDonald’s headquarters to release the Chain Reaction Report, which graded the top 25 U.S. burger chains on their antibiotics policies. After McDonald’s received an “F,” the company responded on Twitter and in the media that it would release a global antibiotics policy for its beef by the end of the year. We are excited to see that McDonald’s followed through on its pledge to move forward on restricting antibiotic use.
And it couldn’t come a moment too soon. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 23,000 Americans die every year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria and millions more get sick—a health crisis fueled in part by the widespread overuse of antibiotics on industrial farms.
Seventy percent of medically important antibiotics sold in the United States are for use on livestock and poultry. Antibiotic misuse on farms occurs when producers routinely give animals drugs to compensate for unsanitary, crowded conditions rather than to treat sick animals. This practice is a major threat to human health because it fosters the development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. By 2050, experts estimate 10 million people a year could die globally from drug-resistant infections.
Consumers called on McDonalds to hold the antibiotics. Its response shows progress, and we look forward to seeing the company continue to use its size for good when it comes to preserving life-saving antibiotics. Now, we’re calling on Wendy’s and other major restaurants and industrial farms to follow McDonald’s lead and transform the way we raise meat in our country and protect public health.
*Opinion expressed is Dr. Spellberg’s, not that of LAC+USC Medical Center.