McDonald’s is an American icon. The corporate giant occupies a corner of our collective consciousness: The golden arches are etched in memories of family road trips, late-night teenage shake runs, dinner detours on the way home from work.
The restaurant practically invented fast food, and as its signage notes, McDonald’s has served billions.
Those billions — McDonald’s customers — are exactly why the company has the power to combat the overuse of antibiotics in industrial agriculture, an unnecessary practice that is leading to the spread of the antibiotic-resistant superbugs now shaking the foundation of modern medicine.
While overuse in medical settings is a factor contributing to superbugs’ ability to adapt to the antibiotics designed to kill them, industrialized livestock operations — like the ones that supply meat to McDonald’s — play an outsized role in this looming public health threat.
A staggering 70 percent of antibiotics are sold for use in livestock and poultry operations here in the U.S. Often, these precious drugs are given to animals that aren’t even sick, to prevent illness in crowded and unsanitary conditions or to promote growth.
The stakes of this reckless misuse are high. According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 23,000 Americans die each year as a direct result of antibiotic-resistant infections, and the World Health Organization has called antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” Without action, a simple splinter might soon cause an infection that kills — a fate that, though it sounds absurd now, was a fact of life before the advent of antibiotics.
To its credit, McDonald’s understands the role it can play in discouraging the practices that are breeding antibiotic-resistant superbugs. In 2015, U.S. PIRG advocacy helped persuade the company to stop serving chicken raised on our life-saving medicines, a commitment that caused chicken supplier Tyson Foods to start raising its chickens without routine antibiotics, and other restaurants and suppliers to follow suit. Now, we estimate that, in the near future, nearly half the chicken in this country will be raised without the routine use of medically important antibiotics.
That’s a major win, but with news that cases of antibiotic-resistant “nightmare bacteria” have been confirmed in 27 states, the company can take stronger, swifter action — now.
McDonald’s is America’s largest buyer of beef, and a major pork purchaser. If McDonald’s commits to eliminating all meat raised on routine antibiotic use from its supply chain, and lays out a strict transition timeline for suppliers to change their practices, the company would fundamentally shift the marketplace. A commitment from McDonald’s would also make it easier for us to convince other restaurants to follow suit, just as restaurants like Subway and KFC did after McDonald’s began serving chicken raised without routine antibiotic use.
Our work with the country’s biggest restaurants builds on our advocacy at the state level, where we’ve been successful in helping to pass landmark legislation in Maryland and California banning the routine use of antibiotics at farms in those states. These local success stories have laid the foundation for action elsewhere, and we’re now pursuing similar bans in seven other states, from Washington to Massachusetts, Illinois to Texas.
We don’t need to raise our food in ways that put public health at risk. That’s why, this summer, U.S. PIRG and our sister groups are calling on McDonald’s to seize the opportunity to commit to ending sales of all meat raised on the routine use of antibiotics by August 2018.
We’re asking thousands of people in cities around the country to sign petitions calling on McDonald’s to once again change the landscape of American food, and preserve our life-saving medicines in the process.