Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become a massive health problem, killing thousands of people every year and prompting calls to phase out the unnecessary use of the drugs on farm animals and in people. After all, the more often these drugs are used, the more quickly bugs outsmart them — rendering them useless.
Now McDonald's is trying to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance, one McNugget at a time. The company announced today that it will stop buying chicken that has been reared on antibiotics meant for humans within two years.
Given that McDonald's is the largest restaurant chain in the United States, and 80 percent of the antibiotics in America are used on farms, the move could have a major impact on how animals are reared and consumer expectations.
But in many respects, the policy doesn't quite go as far as it could. The chain will still allow chicken suppliers to use ionophores — antibiotics added to animal feed to accelerate growth. While these drugs aren't used in humans, their overuse could still have an impact on public health.
We're hooked on antibiotics — and it's a problem
Right now, farmers give their animals antibiotics for all sorts of reasons. Drugs are often used to treat infections, a practice that's largely uncontroversial. But animals also routinely receive low doses of antibiotics to prevent diseases, as well as to fatten them up and allow them to live in squalid conditions. These latter practices, experts say, amount to overuse.
Researchers and lawmakers who worry about the growing problem of drug resistance have been trying to get the US agricultural sector to go the way of Denmark and other European countries, where farmers now only use the drugs to treat sick animals. Europe's tough policy on agricultural overuse came about as scientists discovered that using antibiotics in farm animals only exacerbated the drug-resistance problem.
In the United States, however, the agricultural industry has long blocked efforts to tackle antibiotic resistance. Inside Congress, legislation to stop overuse on farms has repeatedly died.
McDonald's new policy on antibiotics is limited
In some ways, however, the landscape is shifting. Food companies like Chipotle, Panera Bread, Applegate, and most recently, McDonald's, have started taking stands on antibiotic overuse with various policies limiting the kinds of drugs their suppliers can use and when.
Yet these policies aren't always airtight. McDonald's new policy, for instance, has at least a couple of limitations. First, it only applies to US restaurants, not the tens of thousands of global locations that the company also owns. Second, the antibiotics restriction only applies to chicken and not beef — and the latter is a staple of their menu.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the new policy won't guarantee that all chicken antibiotic-free. The company can still purchase birds from suppliers who use ionophores, an animal antibiotic that's not used in humans, but whose overuse could potentially have an impact on human health.
"Resistance can cross drug classes and species," Kevin Outterson, an expert on superbugs based at Boston University, told me in an email. "One cannot assume that using ioanophores will have no impact on human health." According to the scientific literature, the potential impact of animal drugs like ionophores in fostering antibiotic-resistance bugs that affect humans is still very unclear.
When asked about the specifics of how treating animals would change under the new policy, Marion Gross, a McDonald's senior vice president, told Vox the company would not be releasing those details. She emphasized that McDonald's is responding to consumer demand, and that this was a big first step.
Still, other companies — such as Chipotle — have gone even further than McDonald's has, by pledging to use only antibiotic-free meat. A Chipotle spokesperson criticized McDonald's in an interview with the Huffington Post: "Using [ionophores] in poultry or animal production is simply not necessary with proper animal husbandry," he told the Huffington Post. "McDonald's decision to phase out antibiotics that are used to treat illness is an important first step, and we'd love to see others follow suit. But to be truly antibiotic-free, you need to stop using ionophores as well."
But even limited steps can still have an impact
Despite their limitations, experts say, these moves by giant food companies are usually a step in the right direction.
"These consumer-driven approaches are the most feasible way to reduce the US use of animal antibiotics in the near term," said Outterson. He noted that McDonald's leadership on the issue is especially important because bills related to antibiotic resistance in the US Congress have been repeatedly blocked by industry.
Though we have long known about antimicrobial resistance, as superbugs and drug-resistant infections seem to be popping up more frequently, the problem is gaining urgency.
The FDA now estimates that bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics cause 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths in the US each year.
There are already a number of infections — gonorrhea and strains of tuberculosis — that don't respond to the drugs we have, and reasonable predictions for the future suggest superbugs will kill 10 million people globally per year by 2050. That's more than the current death toll from cancer.
To learn more about why antibiotic resistance is a massive problem, read this interview with a US Congresswoman who has been leading the charge to cut back on overuse of the drugs.