By Lauren Hepler / Source: BusinessGreen


Fast-food giant McDonald’s today is announcing new standards for the chicken supplied to its 14,000 US restaurants.

While the company isn’t going antibiotic-free, McDonald’s plans within two years to sell only chicken “raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine,” according to a statement provided to GreenBiz.


The distinction highlights increasing concern about how human antibiotics fed to livestock – in many cases to maximize growth, rather than to treat illness – contribute to “superbugs,” or drug-resistant bacteria that can also spread among people.

“We’re listening to our customers,” Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America supply chain, told GreenBiz. “At the end of the day, our customers are telling us that things have changed for them, and their expectations have changed in terms of how their food is sourced.”

Jonathan Kaplan, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Food and Agriculture program – a vocal opponent of antibiotics in the food supply chain – said in a statement that the news could be a driver of more action, though significant room to improve in other areas of the McDonald’s supply chain remains.

“If these [goals] are verifiable, given this company’s massive purchasing power and iconic brand, we may be at a tipping point for better antibiotic stewardship in the poultry industry,” Kaplan said. “Hopefully, chicken is just the start – the Big Mac and McRib may be next.”

As for turning talk into action, Gross said McDonald’s is already beginning discussions with suppliers that will have to implement the changes. She added that the company will utilize a USDA process-verified program to ensure compliance.

Gross declined to provide a precise estimate of how much the transition away from antibiotic-infused chicken feed would cost the company, but called the initiative “a significant investment.”

McDonald’s, fresh off a change in chief executive, saw net income drop 14.8 percent last year, a reflection in part of more competition from fast-casual restaurants marketing higher-quality ingredients, often sourced sustainably.

Acting on antibiotics

The deeper dive into the fast-food supply chain comes as consumers seek more information about where the products they buy come from and how they are made – a dynamic that companies in industries ranging from retail to electronics to food are now being forced to confront.

Other large meat suppliers, such as Cargill, Perdue and Tyson, have also embarked on new certification or marketing campaigns related to animal antibiotics in recent years. Tyson in particular learned a $5m lesson on labeling when it paid that sum toward a 2010 settlement for selling food as antibiotic-free when some drugs – a class of animal-only antibiotics called ionophers used to treat diseases in poultry – were still present.

McDonald’s, too, will continue to allow suppliers to administer ionophers.

“We don’t necessarily believe that a no-antibiotics-ever policy is the best way,” Gross said, noting that the company aims to address “animal health and welfare as well as human health.”

She added in a statement that, “Any animals that become ill deserve appropriate veterinary care. Our suppliers will continue to treat poultry with prescribed antibiotics, but then they will no longer be included in our food supply.”

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