McDonald's Corp's U.S. restaurants will gradually stop buying chicken raised with antibiotics vital to fighting
human infections, the most aggressive step by a major food company to change chicken producers' practices
in the fight against dangerous 'superbugs.'The world's biggest restaurant chain announced on Mar 4 that within
two years, McDonald's USA will only buy chickens raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine.
The concern is that the overuse of antibiotics for poultry may diminish their effectiveness in fighting disease in
humans. McDonald's policy will begin at the hatchery, where chicks are sometimes injected with antibiotics while
still in the shell.
"We're listening to our customers," Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald's North American supply
chain, told Reuters. She said the company is working with its domestic chicken suppliers, including Tyson Foods
Inc, to make the transition. Veterinary use of antibiotics is legal. However, as the rate of human infections from
antibiotic-resistant bacteria increases, consumer advocates and public health experts have become more critical
of the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to chickens, cattle and pigs.
Scientists and public health experts say whenever an antibiotic is administered, it kills weaker bacteria and can
enable the strongest to survive and multiply. Frequent use of low-dose antibiotics, a practice used by some meat
producers, can intensify that effect. The risk, they say, is that so-called superbugs might develop cross-resistance
to critical, medically important antibiotics.
Superbugs are linked to an estimated 23,000 human deaths and 2 million illnesses every year in the United States,
and up to $20 billion in direct healthcare costs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Poultry producers began using antibiotics in the 1940s, not long after scientists discovered that penicillin, streptomycin
and chlortetracycline helped control outbreaks of disease in chickens. The drugs offered an added benefit: They
kept the birds' digestive tracts healthy, and chickens were able to gain more weight without eating more food.
The poultry industry's lobby takes issue with the concerns of government and academic scientists, saying there
is little evidence that bacteria which do become resistant also infect people. This may be a "tipping point for antibiotic
use in the poultry industry," said Jonathan Kaplan, the Natural Resources Defense Council's food and agriculture
There are exceptions to McDonald's new policy. The company will buy chicken from farmers who "responsibly use"
ionophores, an animal antibiotic not used in human medical treatment, Gross said. The phase-out applies only to
McDonald's roughly 14,000 U.S. restaurants. It currently does not affect the company's approximately 22,000
international restaurants. The action by McDonald's, which has been fighting to win back diners and bolster sagging
U.S. sales, is in step with consumer demand for food made with 'clean' and more 'natural' ingredients. But it falls short
of similar policies at smaller chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread Co, which ban the use of ionophores.
A Reuters investigation last year revealed that some of the nation's largest poultry producers routinely fed chickens an
array of antibiotics, not just when sickness strikes, but as a standard practice over most of the birds' lives. The Reuters
report also found that low doses of antibiotics were part of the standard diet for some of Tyson's flocks, including two
internal company documents showing the use of bacitracin. Though that drug is not classified as medically important
by the federal Food and Drug Administration, bacitracin is commonly used to prevent human skin infections.