McDonald’s Corp is moving forward with plans to reduce the use of antibiotics in its global beef supply.
“We revised our vision for antimicrobial stewardship, which really talks about how antimicrobials should be handled in the future. It defines our three Rs, which is refine, replace and reduce,” said Ernie Meier, McDonald’s director of quality systems, U.S. supply chain management.
In a statement released last December, McDonald’s will measure current usage of antibiotics across its diverse, global supply chain. Based on the findings, it plans to establish specific reduction targets by the end of next year.
In the U.S., McDonald’s customers consume 600 million pounds of beef annually, and the company’s move to reduce antibiotic use is driven by concerns that the overuse of antibiotics important for human medicine in farm animal production may diminish the drug’s effectiveness in people.
McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast-food chain, now becomes the largest beef buyer to address antibiotic use in cattle, potentially creating a new standard for cattle producers.
“McDonald’s iconic position and the fact that they’re the largest single global purchaser of beef make it hugely important,” David Wallinga, a senior health adviser for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, told Reuters.
McDonald’s said it will measure the use of antibiotics in its 10 biggest markets, including the United States, and set targets to curb their use by the end of 2020. The markets cover 85 percent of the company’s global beef supply chain.
Under the McDonald’s policy, medically important antibiotics cannot be used to routinely prevent disease in food animals in the supply chain.
The company does not expect the policy to raise hamburger prices, although franchisees set their own menu prices, spokeswoman Lauren Altmin said. Franchisees operate about 90 percent of McDonald’s restaurants.
The Animal Health Institute, which represents pharmaceutical companies, said it supported “judicious” use of antibiotics and that drug makers are developing alternatives.
Bob Smith, an Oklahoma-based cattle veterinarian for Veterinary Research and Consulting Services, told Reuters farmers have worked to cut back on antibiotic use while keeping cattle healthy. The lack of alternatives limits their options, however, when animals fall ill, he said.
“We will need those medically important antibiotics in meat production for a long, long time,” Smith said. “We want to use those wisely.”
U.S. farmers and ranchers have a jump-start on the effort. Industry-wide practices to improve antibiotics use have paid off, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA figures show a 14% reduction in domestic sales and distribution of all medically important antibiotics used in food animal production from 2015 to 2016, and a 33% decrease from 2016 to 2017. That’s an indication of good stewardship.
“McDonald’s has adopted the policies that we have around antimicrobial stewardship because it’s the right thing to do for the animals,” Meier said. “A sick animal has to be treated, and there’s no reason why that animal should not be cared for in a compassionate and humane way. That animal and the meat that animal is going to produce is healthy and safe for human consumption.”
McDonald’s says it remains committed to continued responsible antibiotics use through its policies for beef, dairy beef, chicken and pork.
“Customers want to know and trust what McDonald’s is doing, and so we have a lot of information that’s on our website around sustainability, which includes animal welfare, it includes antimicrobial stewardship,” Meier says. “That’s available online for anyone to research and look for if they’re interested in it.”