McDonald’s to cut antibiotics for chicken sold in U.S.

mcdonalds mcnuggets chicken antibiotics
McDonald's
As consumers express more interest in where their food comes from, fast food giant McDonald's is cutting down on antibiotics in its supply chain.

Fast-food giant McDonald's today is announcing new standards for the chicken supplied to its 14,000 U.S. restaurants.

While the company isn't going antibiotic-free, McDonald's plans within two years to sell only chicken "raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine," according to a statement provided to GreenBiz.

The distinction highlights increasing concern about how human antibiotics fed to livestock — in many cases to maximize growth, rather than to treat illness — contribute to "superbugs," or drug-resistant bacteria that can also spread among people.

"We're listening to our customers," Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America supply chain, told GreenBiz. "At the end of the day, our customers are telling us that things have changed for them, and their expectations have changed in terms of how their food is sourced."

Jonathan Kaplan, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's Food and Agriculture program — a vocal opponent of antibiotics in the food supply chain — said in a statement that the news could be a driver of more action, though significant room to improve in other areas of the McDonald's supply chain remains.

"If these [goals] are verifiable, given this company’s massive purchasing power and iconic brand, we may be at a tipping point for better antibiotic stewardship in the poultry industry," Kaplan said. "Hopefully, chicken is just the start — the Big Mac and McRib may be next."

As for turning talk into action, Gross said McDonald's is already beginning discussions with suppliers that will have to implement the changes. She added that the company will utilize a USDA process-verified program to ensure compliance.

Gross declined to provide a precise estimate of how much the transition away from antibiotic-infused chicken feed would cost the company, but called the initiative "a significant investment.”

McDonald's, fresh off a change in chief executive, saw net income drop 14.8 percent last year, a reflection in part of more competition from fast-casual restaurants marketing higher-quality ingredients, often sourced sustainably.

Acting on antibiotics

The deeper dive into the fast-food supply chain comes as consumers seek more information about where the products they buy come from and how they are made — a dynamic that companies in industries ranging from retail to electronics to food are now being forced to confront.

Other large meat suppliers, such as Cargill, Perdue and Tyson, have also embarked on new certification or marketing campaigns related to animal antibiotics in recent years. Tyson in particular learned a $5 million lesson on labeling when it paid that sum toward a 2010 settlement for selling food as antibiotic-free when some drugs — a class of animal-only antibiotics called ionophers used to treat diseases in poultry — were still present.

McDonald's, too, will continue to allow suppliers to administer ionophers.

“We don’t necessarily believe that a no-antibiotics-ever policy is the best way,” Gross said, noting that the company aims to address "animal health and welfare as well as human health."

She added in a statement that, "Any animals that become ill deserve appropriate veterinary care. Our suppliers will continue to treat poultry with prescribed antibiotics, but then they will no longer be included in our food supply.”

Gail Hansen, senior officer of the Antibiotic Resistance Project at Washington, D.C., think tank The Pew Charitable Trusts — an organization that in the past has criticized McDonald's for its antibiotics policies, particularly as they relate to beef — said the inclusion of ionophers is reasonable.

“It allows for the animals to be sick," said Hansen, who is also a veterinarian. "It may sound to a lot of folks like they’re trying to find a loophole, but this to me is a more practical way of looking at things."

At an industry-wide level, advocacy groups like meat standard-setter Animal Welfare Approved paint the use of antibiotics as challenges symptomatic of broader issues with mass-produced food. They contend that drugs can help minimize the spread of disease in overly-cramped living quarters, and that antibiotics can easily be passed off as preventative care when really being used to maximize animal growth along with corn-heavy diets.

To combat that, the Food and Drug Administration has tried working directly with drug companies on voluntary efforts aimed at curbing non-medical uses of antibiotics. Congress has also floated multiple reform measures aimed at the drug companies that produce antibiotics.

Hansen notes that such policy-focused measures don't preclude food companies like McDonald's from acting independently. And voluntary, industry-led associations are forming in several markets where the benefits of collaboration can help outweigh concerns about working with the competition.

"Regulations focus on drug makers because, to a certain extent, the label is a law. That’s a floor — it’s not a ceiling,” Hansen said. “Large corporations that are buying chicken or beef or whatever can set their own standards. They can say we want to look at what’s best for public health, for our customers, for whatever."

Though the antibiotics in our food system are a recurring point of controversy, the economics in play — like finding ways to make nutritious foods more affordable or helping farmers cover added costs associated with healthier livestock feed, for example — remain vexing challenges to conquer at scale, particularly as risks around food insecurity become more pronounced.

“You can’t just yank out antibiotics that have been used since the 1950s, or at least since the 1980s in a huge way,” Hansen said. “We are used to very cheap, plentiful food.”

Global obstacles

Food is a global business. That's particularly evident with a company like McDonald's, which counts 36,000 locations in more than 100 countries. They serve about 69 million customers per day.

As in other industries, operating in that many jurisdictions can get complicated, particularly when it comes to widely varied supply chain factors. And McDonald's does represent many of the challenges that multinational companies can face, from concern about inhumane animal living conditions in far-away places like Brazil to the necessity of signing onto global pledges for hulking sustainability issues like deforestation.

With antibiotics, Hansen said a country-by-country approach makes sense. Places like Europe already have stricter standards for drugs, but markets including China operate over-the-counter with little regulation.

“It does make sense for them to be looking market specific,” Hansen said. "The calculus you do and what the regulations are is different across the world."

Gross also promises more refinements in the future.

“We’re going to continue to assess our menu. We’re going to continue to assess our sourcing," she said. “We feel that this is really a meaningful step, and it’s going to get us a lot closer to meeting our customers’ expectations.”