The largest beef buyer in the world has updated its plans for the use of antibiotics in cattle production, but critics say more specificity and urgency are needed to better address the issue.

McDonald's new market-specific, responsible-use goals for medically important antibiotics do not mandate specific reduction targets for cattle producers. McDonald’s said the new approach was informed by “significant research, pilot testing and collaboration with subject-matter experts.”

In line with World Health Organization guidance, McDonald’s said it believes there is a place for the responsible use of antibiotics in the beef supply chain. In updating its policy, the fast food giant focused on pilot projects in their top 10 beef sourcing markets and accounted for over 80% of its global beef supply chain as of the end of 2021.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an average of 161.3 milligrams of antibiotic active ingredient are used per kilogram of U.S. beef cattle. McDonald's aims to be well below that average across its beef and dairy supply chains.

In Australia, Brazil, Canada, U.S. and New Zealand, the new policy targets the total use of medically important antibiotics in dairy to less than 50 mg/kg and less than 35 mg/kg for beef. In France, Germany, Ireland, Poland and UK, the dairy targets are less than 21.5 mg/population collection unit (PCU) total and less than 10 mg/PCU total for beef cattle.

In a statement provided to Agri-Pulse, McDonald’s said, “While blanket reduction goals may simply lead to ‘less’ overall usage, exact responsible usage targets go a step further so that producers can carefully monitor, control and refine the use of these important medications based on the unique needs of their animals and the environments they live in.”  

But NRDC called the McDonald’s updated policy an “optical illusion." McDonald’s said it plans to share an update on its progress toward the goals by the end of 2023 but did not detail a rollout plan or time-bound completion date to ensure accountability across its supply chain.

Lena Brook, director of food campaigns at NRDC, said McDonald’s committed in 2018 to capture antibiotic use baseline data across the 10 target markets with a promise of publicizing reduction targets for producers two years later. “The COVID pandemic created understandable delays, yet it also seems that the company took advantage of that difficult moment to backtrack on its promises and shift away from concrete reductions toward these ‘responsible use’ targets,” Brook said.

McDonald’s said their journey is “far from over” and pointed to stakeholder and supplier partnerships that will continue to help the company drive positive outcomes. Currently, there is a lack of consistent processes, definitions, regulations or thresholds for the responsible use of antibiotics in the company's top 10 sourcing markets.

lenabrook_sf_450.jpegLena Brook, NRDC

Because there is limited data on antibiotic use in the industry, McDonald’s said it intends to partner in the collection of data associated with global beef and dairy industries across all in-scope markets.

“Informed by farm-level insights and collaboration with academics, suppliers, veterinarians, animal health experts, and industry leaders, we expect this practical and evidence-based approach will best advance our original and unchanged principles of refining, replacing and reducing the use of antibiotics within the beef supply chain,” McDonald’s added in its response to Agri-Pulse.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Chief Veterinarian Kathy Simmons said cattle farmers and ranchers are committed to the judicious use of antibiotics and have proactively and voluntarily taken steps toward raising healthy cattle while reducing antibiotic use. A recently released FDA report shows medically important antimicrobial drugs approved for use in food-producing animals decreased by 38% from 2015 to 2021.

“McDonald’s recognizes that minimizing the use of medically important antibiotics to preserve their effectiveness in human medicine involves engaging ranchers and veterinarians in the responsible use of antibiotics,” said Simmons.

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