Following criticism that it was backtracking on a commitment to reduce the use of medically important antibiotics in its beef supply chain, fast-food giant McDonald's has set targets for responsible antibiotic use in the countries that supply most of its beef.
The company says that, after conducting pilot tests to collect data on antibiotic use at commercial feedlots and working with subject-matter experts, it has established market-specific targets for responsible use of antibiotics by producers in the 10 countries that represent more than 80% of its beef supply chain. According to the policy, the targets are aligned with World Health Organization (WHO) and World Organization for Animal Health standards for responsible antibiotic use.
"Responsible antibiotic use is a critical component of our global commitment to improving the health and welfare of animals in our supply chain," the company says in the updated policy.
The update is the latest step in a journey that began in December 2018, when McDonald's announced that it would measure medically important antibiotic use and, by the end of 2020, establish reduction targets for beef producers in the countries that supply the bulk of its beef. That announcement was widely praised by antibiotic stewardship, food safety, and animal health advocates, who suggested that the move could help spur a shift within the beef industry toward using fewer antibiotics.
Globally, an estimated 73% of medically important antibiotics—those antibiotics that are also used in human medicine—are sold for use in food-producing animals, and the beef and dairy cattle industry is among the biggest users. In the United States, according to the most recent sales report from the Food and Drug Administration, cattle accounted for 41% of domestic antibiotic sales for food-producing animals.
Stewardship advocates and public health experts, along with the WHO, warn that widespread use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals, particularly the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and routine disease prevention, is contributing to rising rates of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). They also argue that antibiotics are used to cover for practices that increase the risk of infection and endanger animal health.
That's why the announcement from McDonald's—one of the world's largest purchasers of beef—was so welcome. But 2020 passed with no news about those reduction targets, a delay the company said was due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In February of this year, a coalition of public interest, animal welfare, and environmental groups sent a petition to McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski urging the company to fulfill its pledge. In July, they criticized the company for backtracking on its commitment.
The targets for responsible antibiotic use in the updated policy apply to beef and dairy cattle suppliers in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The company says the targets are market-specific, not producer-specific, and that adjustments to the policy will be made over time.
"Our antibiotic use policies do not permit the routine use of medically important antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion or the habitual use of antibiotics for disease prevention," the policy says. "Our focus is on refining antibiotic selection and administration, reducing non-therapeutic antibiotic use, and, when possible, replacing antibiotics with long-term solutions to proactively prevent disease and protect animal health and welfare."
Critics want a timeline
Among the groups that have been urging the company to set reduction targets, reaction to the updated policy was mixed.
Matthew Wellington, public health campaigns director for the US PIRG (Public Interest Research Groups) Education Fund, said the policy could "go a long way to help preserve our life-saving medicine," but that McDonald's needs to take additional steps.
"McDonald's can help change the face of the beef industry and stop rampant misuse of antibiotics, but it's critical that the company set a deadline for meeting its targets and establish a way to measure their progress towards them," Wellington said in a US PIRG statement. "Otherwise, it's just a pipe dream. Given the severity of the antibiotic resistance crisis, I hope McDonald's will commit to meet its responsible antibiotic use targets within the next two years."
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said that, without a detailed rollout or timeline, the policy is "optics over substance."
"This is especially disappointing given that McDonald's is the largest beef buyer in the world and that the health threat posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria continues unabated," Lena Brook, director of food campaigns at NRDC, said in an NRDC press release.
US PIRG and NRDC are among the groups that have produced an annual scorecard grading McDonald's and other fast-food chains on their antibiotic use policies. These groups argue that, because of their purchasing power, these chains—and the consumers who frequent them—could play a big role in pushing for more responsible antibiotic by meat suppliers. Consumer pressure for antibiotic-free chicken, for example, has resulted in drastic reductions in antibiotic use by the poultry industry.
McDonald's says that its chicken producers in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have eliminated the use of antibiotics defined by the WHO as the Highest Priority Critically Important Antibiotics, and that all of its in-scope markets are set to do so by 2027. The company also says it will update its policy on antibiotic use in the pork supply chain next year.