Commentary

McDonald's Flexes Muscles Announcing Reduction Of Antibiotics In Beef

McDonald’s yesterday announced a plan to phase in a reduction of antibiotics from its beef-based products -- a goal that’s far more ambitious than taking them out of chicken, and that’s being praised by public health officials for leading the way. 

Indeed, the headline on McDonald’s press release reminds one of a muscle-bound bodybuilder preening for a beefcake photo: “Using our Scale for Good: McDonald’s New Antibiotic Policy for Beef.” The copy immediately points out that “according to the [World Health Organization], antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today. With our new policy, McDonald’s is doing our part to help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for human and animal health in the future."

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“The Chicago-based fast-food giant said it is partnering with beef producers in its top 10 beef-sourcing markets to measure current antibiotic use, and by the end of 2020 will establish reduction targets in those markets. The markets, which represent 85% of McDonald’s beef supply chain, will report progress starting in 2022,” Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz reports for the Chicago Tribune.

“We believe this is an ambitious, industry-leading commitment that will help to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for human and animal health in the future,” says McDonald’s spokeswoman Lauren Altmin.

“The chain has been on a mission to clean up its menu since Steve Easterbrook took the helm in 2015. In September, McDonald’s said it would get rid of some preservatives and fake colors from its burgers. It switched to fresh, instead of frozen, beef for its Quarter Pounders this year and removed artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets in 2016,” Bloomberg’s Deena Shanker reminds us.

“Because of its scale, with about 37,000 restaurants worldwide, McDonald’s purchasing changes -- even small ones -- can have major ramifications for the industry. When it nixed margarine from its Egg McMuffins, it sent suppliers into overdrive to make and ship millions of pounds of butter across the country.”

It has had a similar impact on the decrease of antibiotics in fowl. 

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year said sales and distribution of medically important antibiotics for food production fell 14% from 2015 to 2016, the first decline in year-to-year sales since the agency began collecting the data in 2009. Chicken accounted for 6% of the sales, while swine and cattle came in at 37% and 43%, respectively. Many restaurants and meat companies have moved away from using antibiotics in chicken production in recent years, in part because McDonald’s did so,” reports Reuters’ Tom Polansek.

“Given the poultry industry's swift action to reduce antibiotic use, why has it taken so much longer to push for reductions in beef? McDonald's [senior director Bruce] Feinberg says it’s been tricky to determine which antibiotics -- and how much -- are used in beef production,” writes NPR’s Allison Aubrey.

Also, the the beef supply chain is fragmented. With chicken, it’s common for “the same entity [to] handle everything from hatching to slaughter,” Karin Hoelzer, of The Pew Charitable Trusts, tells Aubrey. With cattle, however, “there are many different entities involved in beef production, over a longer period of time.”

“The problem with antibiotics is that when they're given to animals -- usually via feed or water, in an effort to keep them healthy on farms --  that humans ultimately eat, it can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and drug-resistant infections in humans, according to experts,” Zlati Meyer writes for USA Today.

“In October, McDonald's received an F in a report that examined the top 25 fast-food burger chains' antibiotic policies. The “Chain Reaction” report was produced by the Center for Food Safety, Consumer Reports, Food Animal Concerns Trust, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Friends of the Earth, and Natural Resources Defense Council,” she adds.

Yesterday, however, McDonald’s grades had presumably shown great progress.

“The ultimate impact of McDonald’s efforts will depend on the antibiotic reduction targets it will develop in the next two years and we’ll be watching that closely to ensure they are truly meaningful. But McDonald’s deserves praise for stepping up and trying to use its market power to address this growing public health crisis,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumer Reports, in a prepared statement.

“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,” applauds Matthew Wellington, antibiotics program director, U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

And the headline over Gretchen Lidicker’s coverage of the development for mindbodygreen.com proclaims: “McDonald's Has A New Antibiotics Policy -- And Its Impact Could Change The World.”

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