Why McDonald’s Is Moving Toward Antibiotic-Free Chicken

If the Food and Drug Administration won’t act, apparently, McDonald’s will.

The announcement that McDonald’s is moving to ban chicken raised using antibiotics important to human medicine was a bold step for two reasons: 1. The company is the world’s second largest buyer of chicken (it’s number one in beef and pork); and 2. It’s beating the government to the punch — again.

“Our customers want food that they feel great about eating – all the way from the farm to the restaurant – and these moves take a step toward better delivering on those expectations,” says McDonald’s U.S. President Mike Andres in a statement released Wednesday.

The company, which runs 14,000 restaurants in the U.S., says it is working with its suppliers to ensure the ban takes effect in the next two years. It will still allow its chicken suppliers to use “ionophores, a type of antibiotic not used for humans that helps keep chickens healthy,” McDonald’s says.

And for once, public interest groups who often criticize the fast food giant, were singing its praises:

“The announcement from McDonald’s that it will require its chicken suppliers to phase out their use of these important drugs is excellent news for consumers. This move should have major reverberations throughout the meat and poultry industry,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The reason consumer groups are behind the move is that it gets at one of the major complaints about antibiotic use in food animals – it may eventually make our antibiotics stop working. Giving animals that are sick an antibiotic that also happens to be one used by humans creates the risk of developing bacteria with antibiotic resistance, but giving a whole flock a preventative dose instead of cleaning up barns or to cut costs is likely a much bigger one.

Numerous studies have shown a link between the development of drug-resistant bacteria and the over use of antibiotics on farms. The FDA has been grappling with how to balance the interests of food animal producers and human medicine at least since the 1970s, notes my colleague, Maryn McKenna.

After intense lobbying on all sides, the FDA has managed to issue only a guidance suggesting–but not requiring–food producers to phase out their use of antibiotics important to humans.

For its part, the country’s chicken producers say they also have an interest in protecting the effectiveness of antibiotics.  “We’ve proactively and voluntarily taken steps toward finding 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, says Ashley Peterson, National Chicken Council vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs in a statement.

McDonald’s decision to move ahead of the government is not without precedent. It did the same with posting calorie counts,  now required on menus of chain restaurants all around the country. McDonald’s didn’t get to be a multibillion dollar industry for nothing. It’s looking to the future, and other companies will follow.

But the future is not so rosy right now for the fast food industry. Martha Rosenberg over at Salon pointed out recently that McDonald’s is losing out among millenials, possibly because people in their 20s and early 30s are seeking healthier food choices, and many are deciding to go vegetarian. Animal welfare is an issue millenials consistently say they care about in surveys, and perhaps McDonald’s is hoping to get a little credit (and some more cash) from them under its new policy.

That still leaves many animal welfare issues out there, like living conditions for chickens, not to mention how McDonald’s and others will wade into cattle and pig raising issues.

Smith DeWaal is hoping the company keeps moving in this direction: “I hope that McDonald’s will now commit to using beef and pork from animals not treated with important antibiotics.”