By Dr. Mercola
McDonald’s, the world’s biggest restaurant chain, has made a decision that many are calling a game-changer for the food industry. McDonald’s announced they will only buy chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine, a change they plan to phase in over the next two years.
Agricultural use of antibiotics poses a direct threat to human health by promoting the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant disease—both in animals and in humans. Antibiotics also contaminate the environment when they run off into lakes, rivers, aquifers and drinking water, further increasing the risk of drug-resistant bacteria.
Many are not aware just how significant a problem this is, as an estimated 80 percent of total antibiotic sales in the US end up in livestock. Nearly 25 million pounds of antibiotics are administered to livestock in the US every year for purposes other than treating disease, such as making the animals grow bigger faster.
In other parts of the world, such as the EU, adding antibiotics to animal feed to accelerate growth has been banned for years. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been aware of the problem for more than a decade.
However, in 2013 they merely asked drug companies to voluntarily restrict the use of antibiotics that are important in human medicine by excluding growth promotion in animals as a listed use on the drug label.
This would prevent farmers from legally using antibiotics such as tetracyclines, penicillins, and azithromycin for growth promotion purposes. But it’s only a voluntary request. Thankfully, large corporate players like McDonald’s can make a significant dent by voting with their purchase orders.
Is This the End of Antibiotics in Your Chicken?
We’re not there yet, but it seems this is a major change in the right direction. Please understand this move was a result in larger part due to your demand for natural, healthier food.
The company also announced it would begin using milk from cows not treated with the artificial growth hormone rBST, noting “these moves take a step toward better delivering on those expectations.”1
Of course, this is code for “help bolster our slumping US sales.” Due to its sheer size, when McDonald’s makes a change in its food supply, it can have industry-wide repercussions. When the company added sliced apples to Happy Meals, for instance, they became one of the largest apple buyers in the US.2
McDonald’s move toward antibiotic-free chicken will send their suppliers scrambling to meet the demand, lest they lose a major account. And it will force other fast-food chains to consider similar moves.
As reported in TIME:3
“The decision on antibiotics… shows that McDonald’s still enjoys formidable industrial power. Few institutions can dictate terms to the powerful meatpacking industry, but that’s essentially what McDonald’s is doing here. And it means that other meat buyers will likely follow suit.”
The news is positive, but really McDonald’s appears to have made the change after being backed into a corner. Many of their former customers have been flocking to competitors who already offer antibiotic-free meat and poultry (or have committed to it), like Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Shake Shack.
Chik-fil-A, which is actually the largest chicken buyer in the US, announced last year that they would stop buying chicken raised with any antibiotics – taking it a step further than McDonald’s…
McDonald’s Chicken Will Not Be Antibiotic-Free
An important distinction should be made, which is that while McDonald’s will cease selling chicken that contains antibiotics “important to human medicine,” they say “the farmers who supply chicken for its menu will continue to responsibly use ionophores, a type of antibiotic not used for humans that helps keep chickens healthy.”4
Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since one of McDonald’s suppliers is Tyson Foods. In 2008, after Tyson began labeling its chicken antibiotic-free, the USDA warned the company that such labels were not truthful, because Tyson regularly treats its birds' feed with bacteria-killing ionophores.
Tyson argued that ionophores are antimicrobials rather than antibiotics, and are not used on human patients. Tyson suggested a compromise, which was eventually accepted by the USDA -- they would use a label reading "raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans."
Tyson's competitors, Perdue Farms Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc., and Foster Farms, sued, and in May 2008 a federal judge ruled in their favor and told Tyson to stop using the label.
Not long after, USDA inspectors discovered that in addition to using ionophores, Tyson was regularly injecting its chicken eggs with gentamicin, an antibiotic that has been used for more than 30 years.
The agency told Tyson that, based on the new discovery, it would no longer consider the antibiotic-free label "truthful and accurate." Tyson objected again, claiming that because the antibiotics are injected before the chickens hatched, the birds can truthfully be said to be "raised without antibiotics."
Tyson reportedly supports McDonald’s antibiotics decision and says they have reduced the use of antibiotics effective in humans by more than 84 percent since 2011. However, a Reuters investigation last year reported:5
“…low doses of antibiotics were part of the standard diet for some of Tyson's flocks, including two internal company documents showing the use of bacitracin.
Though that drug is not classified as medically important by the federal Food and Drug Administration, bacitracin is commonly used to prevent human skin infections. Tyson said it disagreed with the findings of the Reuters investigation but has since taken further steps to reduce or halt antibiotic use, including in its chicken hatcheries.”
Just How Serious Is Antibiotic-Resistant Disease?
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is in fact linked to food.6 In the words of Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director of the CDC:
"The more you use an antibiotic, the more you expose a bacteria to an antibiotic, the greater the likelihood that resistance to that antibiotic is going to develop. So the more antibiotics we put into people, we put into the environment, we put into livestock, the more opportunities we create for these bacteria to become resistant."
CDC data show that 2 million US adults and children become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 Americans die as a result.7
Worse still, a new report commissioned by UK Prime Minister David Cameron estimates that by 2050 antibiotic resistance will have killed 300 million people, with the annual global death toll reaching 10 million.8 The global cost for treatment is estimated to hit $100 trillion by 2050. Cameron said, ominously:
"If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine."
A mere 15 years from now, in the year 2030, antibiotic-resistant disease—if left to spiral out of control—is expected to have killed 100 million. Resistant malaria is a likely candidate as the top killer, while resistant E.coli would account for the greatest chunk of the financial burden, due to its prevalence.
McDonald’s Still Gets Its Meat from CAFOs
McDonald’s is late to the party when it comes to getting drugs out of their meat. Late last year, six of the largest school districts in the US decided to switch to antibiotic-free chicken in their cafeterias, which is a major victory for schoolchildren and will put pressure on meat companies like Tyson, Perdue, and Pilgrim's Pride to adjust their production practices. Fast-food chain Carl's Jr. even recently rolled out a burger made with grass-fed, free-range beef, promising to be free of antibiotics, steroids, and hormones,10 which pretty much puts McDonald’s announcement to shame.
Keep in mind that consumer demand is what is driving this change. Toward that end, MeatWithoutDrugs.org has organized a campaign, calling for Trader Joe's to exclusively source its meat from animals raised without antibiotics. You can sign the petition here. You can also download and print out a flyer and take it with you the next time you visit your local Trader Joe's store. Finally, when shopping for truly healthy meat, most are aware that McDonald’s is not the place to go. Organic, grass-fed and finished meat, raised without antibiotics and other growth-promoting drugs is really the only type of meat that is healthy to eat, in my view.
This you will find at farmers' markets, family farms, food co-ops, and certain forward-thinking grocery chains and health food stores. When shopping, keep the following labels in mind to help you find truly high-quality meat:11
100% USDA Organic label offers excellent assurance that antibiotics have not been used at any stage of production. "No antibiotics administered" and similar labels also offer high assurance that antibiotics have not been used, especially if accompanied by a "USDA process Verified" shield. "Grass-fed" label coupled with USDA Organic label means no antibiotics have been used, but if the "grass-fed" label appears alone, antibiotics may have been given. "American Grass-fed" and "Food Alliance Grass-fed" labels indicate that in addition to having been raised on grass, the animal in question received no antibiotics. The following three labels: "Antibiotic-free," "No antibiotic residues," and "No antibiotic growth promotants," have not been approved by the USDA and may be misleading if not outright fraudulent. "Natural" or "All-Natural" is completely meaningless and has no bearing on whether or not the animal was raised according to organic principles. "Natural" meat and poultry products can by law receive antibiotics, hormones, and genetically engineered grains, and can be raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).