Food safety experts and campaigners questioned plans by McDonald’s to stop serving chickens fed and injected with antibiotics at its 14,000 US restaurants on Wednesday and pointed to a similar, failed, pledge from the fast-food giant.
The world’s largest restaurant chain has announced it will stop selling chicken raised with antibiotics that are important to human health. The move comes following pressure from US government bodies and others who fear the practice is contributing to the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections.
Food chain experts hailed the move and said it would pressure rivals to make similar changes – but they also highlighted that McDonald’s had yet to fulfil a similar pledge made in 2003.
McDonald’s, which is suffering one of the biggest crises in its 75-year history as its customers defect to more ethically sourced rivals such as Chipolte and Shake Shack, said it would phase out the use of chicken raised with antibiotics “important to human medicine” within two years.
“Our customers want food that they feel great about eating – all the way from the farm to the restaurant – and these moves take a step toward better delivering on those expectations,” McDonald’s US president, Mike Andres, said on Wednesday. Chipotle, Panera Bread and Shake Shack only sell antibiotic-free products.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have long called on McDonald’s, and the food industry in general, to end the practice of routinely using antibiotics in livestock rearing, which contributes to widespread antibiotics resistance in humans. The CDC said more than two million Americans a year develop bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics, which it said leads to 23,000 deaths a year.
The Guardian has learned that this is not the first time that McDonald’s has made – and failed to keep to – a similar antibiotics-use pledge. In 2003 McDonald’s introduced a “global policy on antibiotic use in food animals”, which said:
McDonald’s prohibits the use of antibiotics belonging to classes of compounds approved for use in human medicine when used solely for growth promotion purposes. Growth promotion is defined as the use of antibiotics for any purpose other than disease treatment, control or prevention.
McDonald’s refused to answer questions from the Guardian about its previous antibiotics policy, nor how it would ensure it meets its pledge this time. The company also did not respond to questions about what percentage of its chickens are currently reared with antibiotics.
In a statement, McDonald’s said its new policy would continue to allow chickens used in its supply chain to be given antibiotic ionophores – those that are not used in human medicine.
Antibiotics are routinely fed and injected into chickens to encourage them to grow bigger and stronger. The process starts in the hatchery, with antibiotics injected directly into chicks when they are still in the egg.
In 2001 McDonald’s pledged to reduce antibiotic use in its chickens in the UK and Europe. The company confirmed on Wednesday that it still uses antibiotics in chickens in the UK and Europe 14 years later. McDonald’s did not respond to questions about the percentage of chickens that are still raised with antibiotics.
In a statement, McDonald’s said: “Alongside today’s announcements from McDonald’s USA, McDonald’s Europe announced plans to phase out the use of those antibiotics that play a crucial role in the human treatment of specific and serious infections and diseases in our poultry supply chain.”
Pamela Clough, the organiser of Public Interest Research Group’s Stop the Overuse of Antibiotics campaign, said: “It’s a great step forward that McDonald’s has made this pledge, but its extremely worrying that they made similar promises more than 10 years ago and haven’t kept to them.
“Can consumers trust that they can make this change now? It will require tracking, it will require that we keep tabs on what they’re doing.”
Jonathan Kaplan, director of food and agriculture at the National Resources Defense Council, said McDonald’s decision could have a “transformative impact” in changing antibiotic misuse but warned that the new policy did little to improve on the 2003 pledge.
“As the world’s largest and most iconic restaurant chain, the McDonald’s announcement sends a tsunami of a market signal, putting antibiotic-reliant producers of chickens on notice that times are changing,” he said. “Unfortunately, the company also published a disappointing ‘Global Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Food Animals’ that sadly does little to improve the company’s 2003 policy.”
Kaplan also warned that McDonald’s continuing to allow antibiotics for “disease prevention” allowed for a “giant loophole” with “no real limit on how much or how often these drugs can be administered”.
The new antibiotics policy was the first big McDonald’s announcement under its new chief executive, Steve Easterbrook, who officially took over from previous boss Don Thompson on Monday. Easterbrook, the former head of McDonald’s in Europe, was given a 69% increase in his base salary to $1.1m and his potential bonus was raised from 100% to 160% of his base salary.
In recent weeks Easterbrook told analysts that he sees himself as an “internal activist” who wants to create a “modern, progressive burger company”.
This article was written by Rupert Neate in New York, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 4th March 2015 19.56 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010