Is McDonald’s Doing Enough To Stop Antibiotic Resistance In Poultry?

I am proud to say that I raised two young men without stepping into a fast food restaurant. As a devoted nutritionist and mom, I knew that fast food was not the best way to feed my children. That’s because most fast food is loaded with salt, fat, sugar, preservatives, chemicals and so on.

Slowly but surely, I’ve watched as McDonald’s and other fast food chains have struggled to keep up with the changing times where consumers worldwide demand more natural and fresh foods and are willing to pay for it. Over the years, these chains have experimented with so-called healthier choices like egg white breakfast sandwiches, lunch salads and have even tried a variety of veggie burgers–often fried. Unfortunately, many of these introductions failed for a variety of reasons. One reason is that the ingredients in fast food–even the ones with health claims–are still processed, leaving much to be desired. Iceberg lettuce that has been sitting around for weeks at a time is just not going to pass muster by health-conscious consumers, who will not equate wholesome food with fast food.

Just recently, McDonald’s announced that it was phasing out the use of human antibiotics in its chicken products in the U.S. market within the next two years. Frequently in the news, and as discussed in my book, Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy, there is an overuse of antibiotic drugs in factory farming for the purpose of artificially inducing animals to grow faster and larger, and the use of these antibiotics can have detrimental effects on human health. In the U.S., poultry producers routinely feed chickens a cocktail of antibiotics as standard practice over most of the birds’ lives. Whenever an antibiotic is administered, it kills weaker bacteria and enables the strongest to survive and multiply, creating superbugs, which are resistant to the antibiotics. Concern about the growing level of drug-resistant bacteria has led to the banning of sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals in many European countries and Canada.

Recently, the World Health Organization called antibiotic resistance “a problem so serious it threatens the achievements of modern medicine.” The annual cost to battle antibiotic-resistant infections is estimated at $21 billion to $34 billion in the United States alone, the WHO said. The World Health Organization blames the worldwide upswing in resistance to antibiotics on a combination of factors that included “overuse in many parts of the world, particularly for minor infections,” and “misuse due to lack of access to appropriate treatment.” The factors involved in the problem are not limited to antibiotic use in animal feed.

Even President Barack Obama sees a need for action on this issue and in September 2014 he signed an executive order launching federal efforts to combat the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The President’s 2016 budget proposes a historic investment to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria to protect public healthEach year, about 430,000 people in the United States become ill from food-borne bacteria that resist conventional antibiotics, according to a July report by the CDC. Overall, the CDC estimates that 2 million people are sickened in the United States annually with infections resistant to antibiotics. At least 23,000 people die.

In 2002, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found links suggesting that the people who developed Cipro-resistant bacteria had acquired them by eating pork that were contaminated with salmonella. The report concluded that salmonella resistant to the antibiotic flouroquine can be spread from swine (pig) to humans, and, therefore, the use of flouroquinolones in food animals should be prohibited.

According to The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming there are several direct routes of human exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that develop in industrial food animal production:

  1. Improperly handling or consuming inadequately cooked contaminated meat.
  2. Contact with infected farm workers or meat processors, or perhaps their families, doctors and others with whom they interact.
  3. Drinking contaminated surface or ground water and eating contaminated crops.
  4. Contacting air that is vented from concentrated animal housing or is released during animal transport.

The Pew report states that because of the ease with which bacteria share resistant genes, strains of resistant bacteria that emerge in food animal production may not be contained and may introduce resistant genes to other bacteria in the broader community. This means the overall problem of antibiotic resistance intensifies over time. In order to contain the problem of antibiotic resistance, all improper uses of antibiotics must be addressed in both people and animals

Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Foster Farms, which collectively produce a third of the chicken Americans eat, recently declared their intention to greatly reduce the amount of antibiotics fed to healthy chicken. There is still no way for consumers to know whether one of these companies’ chickens has been treated with antibiotics, unless corporate consumers like McDonald’s refuse to buy chicken that has been treated with antibiotics. In addition, there needs to be public pressure sending the message that putting extra weight on feed animals isn’t worth putting consumers’ health at risk.

When I called the corporate headquarters of McDonald’s to inquire about why the recent headlines only mentioned the phasing out of “human” antibiotics in poultry as opposed to “all” sub-therapeutic antibiotics, I was told to email [email protected]. I was also told that I could not write about McDonald’s without permission because the name is trademarked. I started losing hope, which was magnified when I found a recent article from BBC News, reporting that McDonald’s chicken will be given ionophores, an antibiotic which helps keep chickens healthy but is not used for humans. According to a U.S. government website, beef cattle in feedlots are routinely fed ionophores to increase feed efficiency by as much as 10%. This sounds like McDonald’s is fixing one problem by creating another.

Yet, this could be a great opportunity for corporate America to become the hero in saving the world from this epidemic of antibiotic resistance. McDonald’s could lead the way to stop all sub-therapeutic drug dosing of poultry. However, the headlines sound like another corporate PR pitch, where you have to read between the lines and realize that phasing out human antibiotics may just not be enough to fix this mess.

Today I received this email from McDonald’s:

Hello Layne:

Thank you for contacting McDonald’s about our recently announced menu sourcing initiatives. I’d like to share some information with you.

McDonald’s USA has announced it will only source chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine. The farmers who supply chicken for its menu will continue to responsibly use ionophores, a type of antibiotic not used for humans that helps keep chickens healthy. All of the chicken served at McDonald’s approximately 14,000 U.S. restaurants comes from U.S. farms which are working closely with McDonald’s to implement the new antibiotics policy to the supply chain within the next two years.

Later this year, McDonald’s U.S. restaurants will offer milk jugs of low-fat white milk and fat-free chocolate milk from cows that are not treated with rbST, an artificial growth hormone.

In addition to the menu sourcing changes, McDonald’s USA this week was announced as a founding member of the newly formed U.S. Roundtable on Sustainable Beef. This engagement is a critical step in support of the company’s global commitment and effort to source verified sustainable beef.

To read the full press release, please visit: McDonald’s Newsroom

All of these actions are the latest steps in McDonald’s USA’s journey to evolve its menu to better meet the changing preferences and expectations of today’s customers. We thank you for your feedback.
McDonald’s Customer Response Center