McDonald’s signals a step forward on reducing antibiotic use in its beef supply chain

McDonald's updated its policy to reduce antibiotic use in its beef supply chain in an effort to thwart drug-resistant superbugs, but actions speak louder than words.

Staff | TPIN

McDonald’s updated its antibiotic use policy for its global beef supply chain this week, showing a clear concern for addressing antibiotic resistance. However, it remains to be seen whether this new commitment will translate into action. 

The fast food giant’s revised policy gives guidance to beef producers about responsible antibiotic use practices and sets an expectation for the amount of medically important antibiotics they can use when raising cattle for McDonald’s supply chain across its different markets.

That’s good news because overusing antibiotics to produce meat breeds drug-resistant bacteria that can spread off of farms and sicken people. Health experts warn that without swift action to reduce antibiotic use, it could claim millions of lives: Deaths associated with drug-resistant infections were eclipsed only by those attributable to heart disease and stroke globally in 2019.

Holding McDonald’s accountable to its promises

In January 2018, U.S. PIRG Education Fund launched a campaign urging McDonald’s to commit to reducing the use of medically important antibiotics in its massive beef supply chain. The company did so for chicken in 2015, which helped kick-start a major shift in the chicken industry away from misusing antibiotics. 

After hearing from consumers, medical experts and other stakeholders, McDonald’s released a commitment in December 2018 that it would set targets to reduce the use of medically important antibiotics in its global beef supply chain by the end of 2020. As the world’s largest beef purchaser, McDonald’s commitment had the potential to change the face of the beef industry. But 2020 came and went, and McDonald’s never followed through. Understandably, COVID-19 threw a wrench into its plans, but 2021 also passed without McDonald’s fulfilling its promise. 

For more than a year, U.S. PIRG Education Fund has held McDonald’s feet to the fire, urging the company to use its stature as a major beef buyer to reduce antibiotic use across the industry. We organized more than one hundred medical experts to call on the company to meet its commitment, worked with responsible ranchers and farmers and delivered a petition with our partners signed by more than 25,000 people. 

That’s why we’re glad that McDonald’s has finally followed through and set targets that should result in a meaningful reduction in antibiotic use, as long as the company makes good on the promise. 

Here’s what we hope the company does moving forward: 

  • Set a baseline level of antibiotic use from which to measure progress. 

McDonald’s stated target for antibiotic use in its US beef is at or below 35 mg of medically important antibiotics per kg of beef cattle slaughtered and 50 mg/kg for dairy cows slaughtered for beef. Most people will understandably have no background or context with which to understand this target. Given different nomenclature (kg livestock raised vs. live slaughter weight) and systems (mg/kg in the US vs. PCU total in Europe) for measuring antibiotic use in meat production around the world, it is not straightforward even for experts to make apples-to-apples comparisons between countries and within meat production sectors. That’s why it’s especially concerning that McDonald’s hasn’t released a benchmark for current antibiotic use in its supply chain to compare its target to. Without that benchmark, it’s difficult to show how impactful its commitment will be, whether it’s a major step forward or just slightly better than the status quo. 

  • Create and publicize an implementation plan that describes how it will move from the status quo to its targets.

Targets are only as good as the action they inspire. Consider McDonald’s “tiered” approach to antibiotic prescribing: The company is saying all of the right things about antibiotic stewardship. Medically important antibiotics can only be used to treat sick animals and control a verified disease outbreak, and routine use for growth promotion or disease prevention is not permitted. Highest priority critically important antibiotic classes, as defined by the World Health Organization, must only be used as a last resort. That includes macrolides, which are widely used to prevent liver abscesses in cattle despite receiving this designation. 

The catch is that several parts of this policy have been in place since McDonald’s 2018 commitment, and we still don’t know what, if any, effect it is having on the beef producers that supply the restaurant. For example, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently released this article alleging the use of highest priority critically important antibiotic classes in the beef supply chains of McDonald’s and other major beef purchasers. 

McDonald’s should release a clear follow-up plan for how it will implement and enforce its responsible antibiotic use practices and targets. Otherwise, the targets could just be wishful thinking rather than a commendable effort to reduce antibiotic use in beef production.

  • Release a timeline for making progress toward and achieving the target so it can be held accountable by the public.

Part of what makes a target effective is that it creates urgency, as long as there’s a timeline attached to it. McDonald’s has not set a deadline for meeting its responsible use targets. Without a deadline, advocates and consumers cannot distinguish between success and failure, because success “could” always be right around the corner. If McDonald’s does not attach a timeline to this target, its beef producers likely won’t take it seriously enough to prioritize action. 

According to the Food and Drug Administration’s latest data, sales of medically important antibiotics to beef producers have increased 5% since 2017. The FDA is dragging its feet on addressing antibiotic overuse in meat production, which makes it all the more important for McDonald’s to step up and send a signal to the beef industry that protecting public health is a priority. McDonald’s should take the three steps outlined above to advance its pursuit of responsible antibiotic use across its beef suppliers.   

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Louis Sokolow

Public Health Campaigns, Associate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Louis works on research, writing and coalition building for PIRG's public health campaigns. Louis lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, and loves birding across New England, choral singing (especially Dvořák) and watching the Red Sox.

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