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McDonald’s Is Making a Great Change to Its Chicken

McDonalds Food

Story at-a-glance -

  • McDonald’s announced they will only buy chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine
  • McDonald’s chicken will not be antibiotic-free; they will still buy chicken from farmers using ionophores, a type of antibiotic not used for humans
  • Eighty percent of US antibiotics are used for agricultural purposes, and 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is linked to food

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 move toward less antibiotics in chicken is a good one, but I’m not taking out my dancing shoes just yet. There are still many problems with McDonald’s, which are symbolic of those intertwined in the US food industry as a whole.  Today I’m not referring to all the preservatives, antifoaming agents, color stabilizers, and other questionable ingredients in their food… I’m referring to the fact that most (if not all) of their meat comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are the epitome of what is wrong with the food supply. The routine use of antibiotics isn't the only problem with factory farmed animals. Some chicken producers have already stopped using antibiotics, but that doesn't make their operations any healthier—for the animal or for you.

In the video above, Leah Garces of Compassion in World Farming visits Craig Watts, a contract farmer for Perdue. Dissatisfied with the system, he has taken the bold step to show everyone the reality hiding behind his barn doors. "There's a lot of flaws in the system," he says. "The consumer is being hoodwinked." His chicken farm raises about 30,000 chickens at a time, and over a six-week growing period, it's considered normal for at least 1,000 of them to die. Causes of death include illness, genetic problems, and injuries occurring from overcrowding. The chicks are sent to the contract farmer from Perdue, and the farmer has no control over the health or genetics of the chicks they receive.

Their only job is to raise them, and in order to fatten them up faster, the farmers are, sadly, actually contractually prohibited from giving the flock access to open air and sunshine, because the less the chickens move, and the more they eat, the bigger they grow. Is it any wonder that the lobbyists for the meat, egg, and dairy industries heavily promote, and several states have already enacted, so-called ag-gag laws to prevent anyone from exposing animal cruelty and food-safety issues at CAFOs? They don’t want you to know what’s really going on at their “farms,” which is a significant red-flag that you do not want to eat food raised there.

UK Announces Organic Local Farms Can Feed the Masses

Many still believe that industrial farming, CAFOs, genetic engineering, and heavy chemical use are necessary in order to feed an ever-growing population. But numerous studies and reports have concluded that this simply isn't true. As recently reported by Truth Out:9

"In 2013, the United Nations announced that the world's agricultural needs can be met with localized organic farms. That's right, we do not need giant monocultures that pour, spray and coat our produce with massive amounts of poisons, only to create mutant pests and weeds while decimating pollinators and harming human health. Don't believe the hype: We do not need genetically modified foods 'to feed the world'...

Organic agriculture, which has gone from a fringe movement to a multibillion industry, can produce high yields and withstand disaster and duress much better than chemical-reliant crops, according to reports coming out of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM), which held its 18th annual world congress in Istanbul this past October. And a 30-year study from the Rodale Institute showed that organic farm fields yielded 33 percent more in drought years compared with chemically managed ones."

According to the UN's Trade and Environment Review, shifting away from industrialized farming toward more bio-diverse, ecological, and localized farming practices can address a number of pressing issues, including food security, poverty, gender inequality, and climate change. The answer, they say, lies in a localized food system that promotes consumption of regional produce, because smaller, more diversified farms employ greater numbers of people, and produce more food on less land.

They also use less water, and by using ecological principles, they don't need to use nearly as many chemicals, if any at all. Only when McDonald’s starts to source its food from responsible, safe and humane sources will I give them a semi nod of approval. They’ve come a long way… but they’re nowhere near the finish line.

It’s Time to Demand Meat Without Drugs

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).