McDonald's U.S. restaurants will gradually stop buying chicken raised with antibiotics used to fight human infections, the most aggressive step by a major food company to change chicken producers' practices in the fight against dangerous 'superbugs.'
The world's biggest restaurant chain announced earlier this week that within two years, McDonald's USA will only buy chickens raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine. The concern is that the overuse of antibiotics for poultry may diminish their effectiveness in fighting disease in humans. McDonald's policy will begin at the hatchery, where chicks are sometimes injected with antibiotics while still in the shell.
Veterinary use of antibiotics is legal. However, as the rate of human infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria increases, consumer advocates and public health experts have become more critical of the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to chickens, cattle and pigs.
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.
Superbugs are linked to an estimated 23,000 human deaths and 2 million illnesses every year in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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 drugs offered an added benefit: They kept the birds' digestive tracts healthy, and chickens were able to gain more weight without eating more food.
McDonald's expects its suppliers will treat any animals that become ill, using antibiotics when prescribed. McDonald's, however, will not buy those treated chickens.
The poultry industry's lobby takes issue with the concerns of government and academic scientists, saying there is little evidence that bacteria which do become resistant also infect people.
There are exceptions to McDonald's new policy. The company will buy chicken from farmers who "responsibly use" ionophores, an animal antibiotic not used in human medical treatment.
The phase-out applies only to McDonald's roughly 14,000 U.S. restaurants. It currently does not affect the company's approximately 22,000 international restaurants.
The action by McDonald's is in step with consumer demand for food made with 'clean' and more 'natural' ingredients. But it falls short of similar policies at smaller chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread Co, which ban the use of ionophores.
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