This week, McDonald's announced it would be phasing out chicken meat from animals raised with antibiotics important to human medicine. The news gained headlines in the United States, where the policy will be enacted, and worldwide.
For some, this move signalled a possible tipping point in efforts to curb the use of antibiotics in agriculture for growth promotion. For others, it's simply a form of lip service as it does not cover all antibiotics, nor does it cover the meat most commonly ordered in restaurants – beef.
McDonald's first attempted to develop a policy to reduce antibiotic use a dozen years ago, in 2003. Back then, it ordered a halt to the purchase of any meat raised with medicinally important antibiotics for growth promotion. This meant any antibiotic similar to those used in human medicine would be prohibited if not used to combat infections.
The spirit of the policy revealed a commitment to change on the part of the company, yet there were far too many loopholes. Farmers simply changed the reason for antibiotic use – from growth promotion to infection prevention – and little changed. In late 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set out new regulations to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture. There were claims McDonald's had done little to realize the objectives of its 2003 decision.
Now McDonald's has seen the light, or at least read the writing on the wall, and reinvigorated its efforts with this announcement and updated policy. Although this may be hailed as a game changer, the company is really playing catch-up.
A number of food and farm companies have already decided to phase out meat from animals raised with medically important antibiotics for growth promotion purposes. They include restaurants such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Chick-fil-A and the Canadian-based A&W. Several food producers and grocery chains such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Loblaws and Wal-Mart have also joined in the movement, if only partially. They have either completely removed meats from animals fed antibiotics for growth promotion, or at least have provided consumers a choice.
Unfortunately, as with many policies made by the corporate sector, there is a catch. These initiatives do not apply universally to all antibiotics, only those considered the same as or similar to the ones we use in human medicine. This means several antimicrobials can still be used even for growth promotion. Although this may not appear to be cause for concern, evidence has suggested their use may help increase the overall spectrum of resistance in the environment. Without a complete removal of all options, the current aim of reduction policies – elimination of antimicrobial resistance caused by agriculture – may never be met.
Even if the current actions for antibiotic reduction are not perfect, they are definitely a good start and those companies that have decided to do their part should be commended. As for McDonald's, their customer base has spoken and the company is listening. Whether this announcement will lead to a significant reduction in antibiotic use in chickens remains to be seen. The policy is slated to be fully enacted in two years, so there is time to figure out the logistics and methods for proper auditing of farmers' actions.
Now it is up to the public to keep the company to its word and ensure they follow through. It took 12 years to get to this point, but with increased public scrutiny, the next phase will hopefully happen in far less time.
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Jason Tetro is a Toronto-based microbiologist with over 25 years experience in research. The self-described germs relationship therapist strives to improve humanity's bond with the unseen world. His science bestseller, The Germ Code is out now. You can follow him on Twitter at @JATetro.