By Kari Hamerschlag
When McDonald’s announced earlier this week that it has eliminated antibiotics important in human medicine from its entire chicken supply—at least six months ahead of schedule—the news filled me with optimism that we can make even bigger changes in how meat is produced in this country. The move, which comes after two years of dialogue with Friends of the Earth and a coalition of groups working to end the misuse of antibiotics in meat production, shows that with the right mix of encouragement and pressure, change can sometimes come quickly.
Friends of the Earth
Given the high stakes, we need change as fast as we can get it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified the routine use of antibiotics in livestock production as a major contributor to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that kills at least 23,000 people a year. Roughly 70-80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in livestock production.
I first engaged McDonald’s on this issue at the Menus of Change conference in Boston in 2014. After Dan Coudreaut—McDonald’s vice president of culinary innovation—proclaimed in front of 400 people that McDonald’s agreed with the Menus of Change Principles of Healthy, Sustainable Menus, I was the first to the microphone to ask: “Does that mean that McDonald’s will stop selling meat that is produced with routine antibiotics? Or that you will start serving a veggie burger?” I was surprised and heartened when he responded: “The issue of antibiotics is very important and we are looking into it seriously.”
After the panel, I spoke with a McDonald’s senior public relations officer and asked if McDonalds would consider meeting with a group of public interest organizations to further discuss the issue. Seven months and several meetings later, in March 2016, McDonald’s unveiled its policy to eliminate antibiotics important in human medicine from its U.S. chicken supply. It also announced its Global Stewardship Vision, a commitment to work with pork and beef suppliers to reduce unnecessary antibiotics.
Largely because of its good policy on chicken, McDonald’s received a “C” in the inaugural Chain Reaction Scorecard, a report that evaluates the nation’s top 25 restaurant chains’ meat and poultry antibiotics policies. The company’s announcement will likely improve McDonald’s grade in the second scorecard, which will be released in September 2016.
I am hopeful that McDonald’s announcement will have important ripple effects, showing other lagging companies like Darden—the owner of Olive Garden—and KFC that offering chicken raised without routine antibiotics is good for business and achievable in short order. These positive changes can also light a fire under recalcitrant poultry producers, like Sanderson Farms, that continue to discount the scientifically proven links between over use of antibiotics in livestock production and the rise of anti-resistant bacteria in humans.
For the millions of eaters who are demanding better meat, McDonald’s announcement shows that companies are listening even though Washington is not. The government’s primary response—the Food and Drug Administration’s Voluntary Guidance 213 that curbs drug use for growth promotion, will do little to stop the routine overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, since many drugs have dual uses of sickness prevention and growth promotion.
While we push lawmakers to act, diners must redouble their pressure in the marketplace through social media and comment pages—and by voting with their forks, especially at restaurants like Olive Garden, which portray themselves as “responsible” but continue with irresponsible practices such as routine use of antibiotics in their meat supply.
In the meantime, while McDonald’s deserves praise for making good on its promise, it must understand that to effectively reverse the alarming rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria, the company must also address the misuse of these lifesaving drugs in the nation’s beef and pork supply. McDonald’s first step must be to amend its aspirational, yet toothless policy for its global meat supply. Its inadequate policy on beef is especially troubling given the company’s promotion of its “sustainable beef” initiative, which fails to live up to the meaning of “sustainable” by lacking any meaningful benchmarks on reducing antibiotics or other drugs and harmful chemicals.
McDonald’s shareholders agree on the need for swift action on beef and pork. In May 2016, 26 percent of its shareholders voted for a resolution, asking the company to eliminate the routine use of antibiotics in its beef and pork supply. In March, a coalition of investors managing $1.4 trillion in financial assets called on ten of the largest restaurant companies—including McDonald’s and Darden—to end the routine use of antibiotics important to human health in their global meat and poultry supply chains.
McDonald’s can’t do this alone. It’s time for other companies to join this effort and put pressure on the recalcitrant pork and beef industries that are resisting change. If you agree, please voice your concerns to McDonald’s, Olive Garden, Wendy’s, KFC and other chain restaurants. They are more likely to act knowing that positive action will be rewarded by customers who understand the urgency of this leading public health threat.
We must also insist on bigger changes. McDonald’s progress on antibiotics gives me hope that we can move the food industry toward healthier, more sustainable and humane meat production overall. To reduce the need for antibiotics, we must ask restaurants to work with its producers to end the stressful, crowded and unsanitary conditions in which most food animals are raised. We should also ask for more veggie and organic, humane, pasture–raised options that are better for people, the environment and the animals. If you agree, you can take action here.
Kari Hamerschlag is deputy director of the Food and Technology Program at Friends of the Earth.