WASHINGTON, March 11, 2015 – Fast-food giant McDonald’s has announced a new antibiotics policy for its chicken, a move seen by some as a way to compete with the sustainability and health rhetoric being used by some of its higher-end competitors in the quick-serve space.

McDonald’s is pledging not to use chicken treated with antibiotics “important to human medicine” in about 14,000 U.S. restaurants, a move the company says is in conjunction with a recently-announced Global Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Food Animals.

Lost in much of the hoopla of the announcement was the reality that McDonald’s isn’t banning the use of all antibiotics in its chicken, just those used deemed medically important for humans. The company will still allow for ionophores, antibiotics required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be labeled as “growth promotants,” which McDonald’s said “helps keep chickens healthy.”

According to a release from McDonald’s, the policy will be implemented within the next two years. Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America Supply Chain, said she hopes a decrease in antibiotic use will lead to fewer instances that call for antibiotics.

“If fewer chickens get sick, then fewer chickens need to be treated with antibiotics that are important in human medicine,” Gross said. “We believe this is an essential balance.”

She said producers should still have the option to provide “appropriate veterinary care” to sick animals, including prescribed antibiotics, but those animals will be removed from the McDonald’s food supply.

Companies that have switched to antibiotic-free chicken often note concerns that widespread use of the drugs could contribute to antibiotic resistance. Critics like Caroline Smith DeWaal with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) say the “reckless use” of antibiotics in animal agriculture threatens their effectiveness on humans. In a statement, she said the McDonald’s announcement “should have major reverberations throughout the meat and poultry industry.”

While McDonald’s announcement received positive attention in forums ranging from a Washington Post editorial to a tweet from The Daily Show, chicken producers see the new antibiotics policy as something the industry has been working on for years.

Ashley Peterson, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council (NCC), said producers have a “vested interest” in keeping antibiotics effective, so they have “proactively and voluntarily” been working to find “alternative ways to control disease while reducing antibiotic use.”

“For almost two years, chicken producers have been working with the FDA, farmers and veterinarians to phase out the use of antibiotics that are important in human medicine for growth promotion purposes in animals,” Peterson said in a statement. She added that by December 2016, antibiotics deemed medically important for humans will only be used to prevent disease and treat sick birds. In those instances, the antibiotics will be used exclusively under the supervision and prescription of a veterinarian, as per FDA guidelines.

In 2013, FDA announced a voluntary plan to phase out antibiotics used “for enhanced food production.” They called on producers, veterinarians, and pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily find ways to curb the use of medically-important antibiotics in effort to stop antibiotic resistance in its tracks. Changes included moving away from the use of medically-important drugs for feed enhancement and moving antibiotics also vital for humans from over-the-counter to prescribed use.

Some see McDonald’s announcement as a way for the company to protect market share against smaller chains like Chipotle and Panera Bread that have been pushing the same antibiotic-free advertising message. But it’s not clear yet if the new policy will work. 

Whatever happens, NCC officials don’t see McDonald’s move as having a major effect on the supply chain of chicken, antibiotic-free or otherwise. In an email to Agri-Pulse, NCC’s Tom Super pointed out the industry is used to adapting to the desires of the consumer, having moved from selling mostly whole birds in the 1950s to offering products such as wings and nuggets today. He said NCC is supportive of “the responsible use of antibiotics, under the supervision of a veterinarian, to prevent and treat disease,” but if the consumer wants antibiotic-free, he thinks producers will learn to go antibiotic-free.


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