WASHINGTON— This week McDonald’s announced that the popular fast food chain has met its pledge to stop selling chicken raised on medically important antibiotics. The achievement comes well ahead of the two-year implementation timeline the chain set for itself in March 2015. Public interest, environmental, food safety and consumer groups are praising the company’s quick movement to address a significant problem in how animals are raised for food in the U.S. Many groups have also been putting pressure on other large players in the restaurant industry, including Subway, Olive Garden, and most recently, Kentucky Fried Chicken, to step up as well. Overusing antibiotics in food animals, such as routinely dosing animals to promote growth or prevent disease in crowded conditions, allows harmful bacteria to develop resistance to important drugs. Resistant bacteria don’t stay on farms—they enter the environment via nearby waterways or on the meat on supermarket shelves. In May, E.coli bacteria resistant to the critical antibiotic, colistin, was found in the United States for the first time.
A number of restaurant chains have made at least small steps to address overuse of medically important antibiotics in chicken, but similar initiatives on beef or pork are rare. In February Center for Food Safety and several coalition partners representing millions of consumers called on In-N-Out Burger, California’s iconic hamburger restaurant chain, to become a leader in the industry by prohibiting routine use of antibiotics by its beef suppliers. The company quickly issued a statement committing to do just that, but has yet to provide more information, such as when it hopes to accomplish this goal.
The following is a statement from Cameron Harsh, Center for Food Safety Senior Manager for Organic and Animal Policy:
“The over-use of antibiotics in animals raised for food is a major threat to public and environmental health. Antibiotics should be reserved for when animals are in need of treatment, not for boosting production or as a stopgap for addressing the unhealthy, inhumane living conditions common in factory-style operations.
“Initiatives by major buyers of meat like McDonald’s to eradicate these practices from their supply chains are an important part of protecting human health, animals, and the environment. We hope that other companies, like In-N-Out, will continue to follow this example and set clear timelines for phasing out routine antibiotics. At the same time, strong action from the U.S. government is sorely needed to effectively curb the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture.”
Background on antibiotics overuse on industrial farms:
Antibiotic-resistant infections kill 23,000 Americans, and sicken 2 million every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most large industrial farms administer antibiotics on a routine basis to animals that often aren’t sick in an effort to promote growth and prevent disease brought on by unsanitary production practices. In the United States, 70 percent of medically important antibiotics are sold for use on food animals. That overuse breeds antibiotic resistant bacteria that rapidly multiply and spread off of farms via contaminated meat, direct human to animal contact, and through the air, water and soil.
California recently passed landmark legislation that prohibits the routine use of antibiotics on animals for growth promotion or disease prevention. This first-in-the-nation law must be implemented by January 2018. Strong antibiotics commitments from California-based restaurant chains will help move livestock producers to comply with the new law more quickly.