What you need to know about McDonald's moving to antibiotic-free chicken

McDonald's Golden Arches are seen at the Times Square location in New York. McDonald's Corp's American restaurants will gradually stop buying chicken raised with antibiotics vital to fighting human infections. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
McDonald's Golden Arches are seen at the Times Square location in New York. McDonald's Corp's American restaurants will gradually stop buying chicken raised with antibiotics vital to fighting human infections. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

The world's biggest restaurant chain, McDonald's USA, on Wednesday said its American restaurants will gradually stop serving chicken raised with antibiotics.

The move is the most aggressive step by a major food company to change chicken producers' practices in the fight against dangerous "superbugs". Public health advocates have cheered the move, although they are pushing the company to look into the same for other meats aside from chicken and to implement it at McDonald's restaurants globally.

The fast food giant plans to stop buying the largely antibiotic-free chickens within the next two years. But the company's approximately 22,000 international restaurants are currently not affected.

Ms Marion Gross, senior vice-president of McDonald's North American supply chain, told Reuters the company is working with its domestic chicken suppliers to make the transition.

Here's what you need to know about antibiotic-free meats.

1. What is the fuss over the use of antibiotics in meat?

Antibiotics are important to human medicine. The concern is that the overuse of antibiotics in cattle, hog and poultry may diminish their effectiveness in fighting disease in humans.

While veterinary use of antibiotics is legal, the rate of human infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria has increased. As such, consumer advocates and public health experts have become more critical of the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to chickens, cattle and pigs.

2. How did the practice of using antibiotics in cattle, hog and poultry come about?

Livestock such as cattle, hog and poultry are given antibiotics to make them grow faster and ensure they are healthy.

Poultry producers began using antibiotics in the 1940s, not long after scientists discovered that penicillin, streptomycin and chlortetracycline helped control outbreaks of disease in chickens. The chickens given antibiotics also gained more weight despite eating lesser food.

3. How will McDonald's new policy work?

McDonald's McNuggets and chicken burgers will not be totally antibiotic-free. Only chicken raised without antibiotics “important to human medicine” will be sold at the chain’s roughly 14,000 locations in the United States.

Farmers selling to McDonald's will also "continue to use ionophores, a type of antibiotic not used for humans" which keeps the chickens healthy, according to the company's press release.

4. How does the use of antibiotics diminish their effectiveness in fighting disease in humans?

Scientists and public health experts say whenever an antibiotic is administered, it kills weaker bacteria and can enable the strongest to survive and multiply.

Frequent use of low-dose antibiotics, a practice used by some meat producers, can intensify that effect. The risk, they say, is that so-called superbugs might develop cross-resistance to critical, medically important antibiotics.

5. How dangerous are superbugs?

Superbugs are linked to an estimated 23,000 human deaths and 2 million illnesses every year in the US, and up to US$20 billion (S$27.4 billion) in direct health-care costs, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

McDonald's also said it expects its suppliers will treat any animals that become ill, using antibiotics when prescribed. McDonald's, however, will not buy those treated chickens, Ms Gross said.

6. What has been the reaction so far?

The poultry industry's lobby has taken issue with the concerns of government and academic scientists, saying there is little evidence that bacteria which do become resistant also infect people.

Also, given McDonald's clout, its purchasing power and brand recognition other smaller chains could also be following suit. So far, Wendy’s and Burger King have said their policies prohibit the use of antibiotics to promote growth.

There have also been concerns about whether there is adequate supply of antibiotic-free chickens. Antibiotic-free chicken currently accounts for a tiny portion of total US supplies, and an increasing desire on the part of consumers for more "natural" products has meant that demand sometimes exceeds supply. 

One key impediment up to now in increasing supplies has been convincing livestock farmers and meat packers to switch to new farming practices that they fear could threaten their profit margins.

7. Could the Big Mac be next? 

Switching to antibiotic-free beef and pork would present even tougher challenges. Making adjustment to supplies is easier in animals that mature more rapidly. It takes only about six weeks to get a chicken ready for slaughter, while it takes four to six months to ready a hog for market and 18 months or more for beef cattle. The company would also almost certainly have difficulty acquiring enough antibiotic-free beef, which is already in short supply, for its burgers.

SOURCE: REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK TIMES 

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