New Campaign Calls on McDonald’s to Hold the Antibiotics from Their Meat Supply Chain

Media Contacts
Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Consumer and public health advocacy organization Illinois PIRG Education Fund is calling on McDonald’s to commit to a concrete timeline to phase out routinely using medically-important antibiotics in its beef and pork supply chains. Illinois PIRG Education Fund and partner groups are singling out the iconic fast food company because McDonald’s has an outsized influence as the biggest purchaser of beef in the United States, and has announced long-term antibiotics vision without specific commitments. Health experts, including the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics, warn that the routine use of antibiotics on animals that aren’t sick fuels drug-resistant bacteria, a major health threat to humans.

“Protecting antibiotics requires action, not reaction. If we don’t act now to preserve the effectiveness of these medicines, we’ll face a world in which common infections once again kill” said Abe Scarr, Director of Illinois PIRG Education Fund. “The Big Mac can make a big dent in stopping the misuse of antibiotics in our food system.”

“As a doctor, I need to know that the antibiotics I prescribe will work,” said Dr. Sameer Patel, Director of Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “The best way to combat resistance is to use antibiotics as a precious resource—use if for patients who need them and not for those who don’t. Routine, excessive, and un-monitored antibiotic use in animals for food production further increases the threat of antibiotic resistance and limits the effectiveness of antibiotics.”

As part of the national campaign launch, U.S. PIRG Education Fund has started gathering signatures on a petition urging McDonald’s to take action on its beef and pork supply chains. Nearly 10,000 people have already signed on in support. Illinois PIRG Education Fund advocates and volunteers held an event in front of a McDonald’s franchise in the Loop to educate people about the dangers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the important role McDonald’s can play. The message was clear: a commitment from McDonald’s to stop selling beef and pork raised with the routine use of antibiotics will help protect our ability to treat infections and save lives.

McDonald’s recently released a vision for phasing routine antibiotic use out of its entire meat supply chain globally, but it has yet to commit to a timeline for making that vision a reality.  

To McDonald’s credit, the company stopped serving chicken raised with medically-important antibiotics in 2016, ahead of schedule. At the time, consumer and health advocates, including Illinois PIRG Education Fund applauded the company’s actions and influence. Now, fourteen of the top 25 restaurant chains in the U.S. have committed to no longer source chicken raised with routine antibiotics, according to the Chain Reaction report.

“We convinced McDonald’s to stop serving chicken raised on life-saving medicines,” said Scarr. “Now, it’s time for the biggest burger chain in the country to make the same commitment for all the meat they sell. Doing so will help protect doctors’ ability to treat infections and save lives.”

The latest numbers from the Food and Drug Administration show sales of medically-important antibiotics to use on food animals decreased from 2015 through 2016, marking the first decline in year to year sales on record. The decline suggests that restaurants’ new attitude toward antibiotics is making an impact. The FDA data also separates antibiotic sales by species for the first time. It shows significant differences among the percentage of medically-important antibiotics going to chicken, cattle and swine — chicken accounts for only 6% of sales, while beef accounts for 43% and pork for 37%.  

Some companies including Chipotle, Subway, Panera Bread, Niman Ranch and Applegate have already moved away from all meat raised with routine antibiotic use, or are in the process of doing so. If McDonald’s, which sells a billion pounds of beef in the U.S. each year and a significant amount of pork, commits to only purchase beef and pork raised without misusing antibiotics, we can take a significant step in ensuring that antibiotics are preserved for treating sick people.

Millions of Americans get sick each year with antibiotic resistant infections and at least 23,000 of them die. A recent study estimates that by 2050, drug-resistant bacteria may kill more people worldwide than cancer kills today. Some of the biggest users of antibiotics are large, industrial farms, many of which routinely give antibiotics to livestock and poultry even when animals aren’t sick. Approximately 70% of medically-important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are for use on food animals. To keep antibiotics working, we need to limit their use to situations when animals are sick, or to control verified infectious disease outbreaks on the farm.