I’ve been writing this Eat and Drink column for more than five years, and I’ve stated some pretty strange things during that time. But I never imagined myself saying this:
Thank you, McDonald’s, for being a leader in public health.
To be clear, while I have chowed down on McNuggets after a long training day, I rarely eat fast food. That’s not likely to change, but I do suddenly find myself cheering on the most iconic chain of them all. In December, the company pledged to remove medically important antibiotics from 85 percent of its beef. (Medically important refers to drugs that are vital to treating infections in humans, too.) The promise builds on the company’s 2003 pledge to use antibiotics responsibly and its 2016 change to using antibiotic-free chicken.
McDonald’s isn’t alone. Over the past few years, Chipotle, Panera, and Subway have all announced similar initiatives. Panera’s commitment to antibiotic-free poultry goes back to 2004. In 2015, Subway said it was phasing out antibiotics in its chicken, pork, and beef. Meanwhile, in December, Costco announced plans to limit antibiotics to therapeutic use in its beef by 2020. (McDonald’s and Costco declined to be interviewed for this story.) Still, the McDonald’s announcement has the biggest potential to shift the market. The company is one of the largest single global buyers of beef, and its decisions have enormous influence on producers.
“What’s crazy is that we are looking to McDonald’s now for leadership on this issue,” says Lance B. Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. Price consulted with McDonald’s (pro bono) when it was setting up its new antibiotics policies. “This is democracy in action,” he says. “This is the voice of people who are educated on this issue demanding that someone lead. Our political leaders are not leading.”
So why should you care? Because the habitual treatment of livestock with antibiotics can lead to the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These so-called superbugs kill approximately 23,000 Americans annually. (Price says that’s a conservative estimate.) According to the Center for Disease Control, two of the most common foodborne bacteria, salmonella and campylobacter, lead to an estimated 410,000 antibiotic-resistant infections in the U.S. each year.
Many human factors contribute to superbug proliferation, including poor sanitation in hospitals and doctors overprescribing antibiotics to people. But agriculture is a significant culprit. When a farm doses animals in its herd with antibiotics, the animals can excrete some antibiotic-resistant bacteria through their waste. (Humans do this, too, but in the U.S., human waste is treated, killing the bacteria in that process.) Because animal waste isn’t always meticulously disposed of, superbugs can get carried off the farm by a dirty boot or a truck tire or dirty hands, then find their way into places they shouldn’t be, like hospitals. The bacteria can also enter the food stream from contaminated water irrigating crops or from improperly handled meat. Serving undercooked meat or not washing cutting boards thoroughly after using them for raw meat can also spread bacteria, some of which may be superbugs.
Price says it’s a constant struggle to get drug companies and agriculture regulators to push for stricter rules. “I don’t think the U.S. is the worst place in the world for drug use in animals, but it would be if we didn’t constantly pressure them to prevent antibiotics from being overused in food-animal production,” he says.
The pressure seems to be working. “In the U.S., the domestic sales and distribution of medically important antimicrobials approved for use in food-producing animals has been in a steady decline since 2009,” says Tamika D. Sims, director of food technology communications for the International Food Information Council, a nonprofit research group. “Specifically, the sales decreased by 33 percent from 2016 through 2017,” she says, pointing to a 2017 U.S Food and Drug Administration report.
When animal producers comply, progress is made. Price cites an example in 2005, when the U.S. banned the use of enrofloxacin, a drug that was given to prevent and treat infections in poultry. Enrofloxacin is an antibiotic related to ciprofloxacin, a medically important human antibiotic. Poultry producers used to put the drug in their chickens’ drinking water. “Relatively speaking, they used very little of it, but it led to a lot of resistance,” says Price. “We saw this resistance coming up very quickly. And as soon as they stopped using it, resistance levels flattened out.”
Jeffrey Sindelar, a meat specialist at the University of Wisconsin’s Meat Laboratory in Madison, cites another way these changes have been helpful. “It forced the poultry industry to think about alternative ways to maintain the health of their flocks,” he says, adding that producers have reduced the number of birds in each chicken shed and have had to keep facilities cleaner than ever before. “From that angle, it’s a healthy approach for the industry at large.”
While fewer animals per foot and cleaner conditions are wins, Sindelar worries it’s not all happy pastures. If a cow that has never needed antibiotics sells for a higher price than one that has, will farmers think twice before treating their sick stock? “That’s a true concern. Are there any situations where animals aren’t being treated where they should be treated?” he asks.
Price understands this. His family owns a cattle ranch in Texas, and he thinks there’s a place for safe, well-regulated antibiotic use to treat sick animals. But he also feels that reducing antibiotic consumption is how we make our entire food supply more ethical. He has spoken to veterinarians for major food companies who say that antibiotics are a crutch for bad animal husbandry. By getting rid of this crutch, producers have to create healthier, cleaner environments, where diseases are less likely to occur.
It will be interesting to see which other major food companies follow McDonald’s lead. In the weeks after its announcement, Taco Bell and Wendy’s announced enhancements to their beef-supply chains. But according to a Natural Resources Defense Council statement, neither initiative is as wide-reaching as McDonald's.
Meanwhile, these programs take time. McDonald’s will spend the next two years studying and measuring antibiotic use and setting targets for removing them from its supply channels. By 2020, the brand will begin reporting on its progress, but as of now, there isn’t a firm end date by which the 85 percent goal will be achieved. The final timeline will be dependent on what the company finds in its study. On the poultry pledge, McDonald’s met its promise to stop selling chicken in the U.S. that had been treated with antibiotics important to human medicine in 2016, but it may take up to 2027 to fulfill that pledge in its restaurants worldwide.
“I grew up with this mentality of ‘one bad day,’” Price says, meaning that animals lived a good life on the ranch for months until slaughter day. “But when you look at how many animals are raised in the United States, every day is a bad day. When we do move back toward that one-bad-day model, what you see is antibiotic use goes down in the animals rapidly.” And that should lead to less resistance in antibiotics—and fewer sick days for humans.
That’s our definition of a happier meal.