Reuters — McDonald’s Corp. said Tuesday it plans to reduce the use of antibiotics in its global beef supply, fueling projections that other restaurants will follow suit.
The move by the world’s biggest fast-food chain addresses concerns that the overuse of antibiotics vital to fighting human infections in farm animals may diminish the drugs’ effectiveness in people.
McDonald’s becomes the biggest beef buyer to tackle the issue in cattle, potentially creating a new standard for livestock producers and threatening sales by drug companies.
“McDonald’s iconic position and the fact that they’re the largest single global purchaser of beef make it hugely important,” said David Wallinga, a senior health adviser for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.
McDonald’s said it will set up pilot programs starting this month and will measure the use of antibiotics in its 10 biggest markets, including Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, and set targets to curb their use by the end of 2020. The markets cover 85 per cent of the company’s global beef supply chain.
Starting in 2022, the company said, it will report its progress against its antibiotic reduction targets across those top 10 beef sourcing markets.
Medically important antibiotics cannot be used to promote growth in food animals in the supply chain or to routinely prevent disease, according to McDonald’s policy.
The company does not expect the policy to raise hamburger prices, although franchisees set their own menu prices, spokeswoman Lauren Altmin said.
The Animal Health Institute, which represents pharmaceutical companies such as Merck and Co., said it supported “judicious” use of antibiotics and that drug makers are developing alternatives.
Merck did not respond to a request for comment.
Elanco said a small portion of its portfolio includes medically important feed-grade antibiotics. The drugs are used to treat conditions such as liver abscesses and respiratory diseases, for which there are not effective alternatives, spokeswoman Colleen Parr Dekker said
“It is important to ensure that policies do not move faster than science,” she said.
Bob Smith, an Oklahoma-based cattle veterinarian for Veterinary Research and Consulting Services, said 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.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year said sales and distribution of medically important antibiotics for food production fell 14 per cent from 2015 to 2016, the first decline in year-to-year sales since the agency began collecting the data in 2009. Chicken accounted for six per cent of the sales, while swine and cattle came in at 37 per cent and 43 per cent, respectively.
McDonald’s has an outsize influence on farm practices due to its size. It previously spurred rivals to eliminate antibiotics from their chicken supplies.
Removing antibiotics from cattle is more difficult, experts said, because the animals live longer than chickens and have more chances to fall ill.
Hamburger chain Wendy’s Co. a year ago said it would buy about 15 per cent of its beef beginning in 2018 from producers that have pledged to reduce by 20 per cent their use of an antibiotic.
“What McDonald’s is doing will hopefully start to shift the industry all together from over-using antibiotics,” said Matt Wellington, antibiotics program director for advocacy group U.S. PIRG.
— Tom Polansek reports on agriculture and ag commodities for Reuters from Chicago; additional reporting by Siddharth Cavale in Bangalore. Includes files from Glacier FarmMedia staff.