McDonald’s Is Changing Its McNuggets—and the Move Could Save Lives

The chain announced new standards for its poultry providers that drastically limit the use of antibiotics.

Chicken McNuggets. (Photo: The Impulsive Buy/Flickr)

Mar 4, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

America’s abiding love for breaded, fried bits of chicken may be a boon to public health.

Forget, for a second, the role those McNuggets and chicken sandwiches may play in the obesity crisis. McDonald’s is the country’s second-largest poultry buyer—lagging behind none other than Colonel Sanders—purchasing 750 million pounds of chicken annually. So when McDonald’s changes its standards for the ingredient, it marks a change for the industry as a whole. On Wednesday, the chain announced that it will no longer serve chicken that has been treated with antibiotics important to human medicine—and some are hoping it will push the whole poultry industry in that direction.

“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,” Mike Andres, president of McDonald’s U.S., said in a press release.

The new standard has been two years in the making, according to Sasha Stashwick, a senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s food and agriculture program. Two years ago, NRDC and a coalition of groups called Keep Antibiotics Working began talking to the chain about updating its decade-old antibiotics policy—which ended the practice of feeding birds antibiotics to promote growth.

“Back in 2003, that was a pretty impressive effort, and it constituted a real leadership position,” Stashwick said in an interview. “They had acknowledged very clearly the problem of antibiotic resistance, and they pointed out that animal agriculture contributes to that.”

In the last 12 years, however, the long-expected crisis of antibiotic resistance has gone from being a problem looming in a distant someday to being an immediate concern. Every year, 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resulting in 23,000 deaths. In a 2013 interview with PBS, Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, the associate director of the CDC, said, “We’re here. We’re in the post-antibiotic era.” As a series of scientific studies have shown, confined animal-feeding operations—factory farms—are environments where antibiotic-resistant bacteria is developing—and the superbugs leave facilities in waste water, on the wind, and in the nasal cavities of farmworkers.

In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration released long-awaited standards to curb the use of the drugs in the livestock industry—which buys 80 percent of the antibiotics produced in the country—but the regulations are voluntary. Furthermore, a loophole allows the status quo of regular low-grade doses to be administered. Instead of being used for growth promotion, the drugs are given as a prophylactic—which is to say, antibiotics are being used in animals in a way that they would never be used in humans, to "prevent" illnesses that don’t yet exist. It all means there is little burden of proof for a rancher to demonstrate need, and in the end, the amount of antibiotics being fed to livestock doesn’t decrease.

This is why McDonald’s move represents what Stashwick repeatedly called a “big step forward.” It goes beyond the FDA’s requirements, limiting prophylactic use of medically important antibiotics.

“We can’t say, ‘This is how antibiotics are used in McDonald’s supply chain,’ ” because the industry is not required to report the drugs that it uses, Stashwick said. “But we can say that if McDonald’s supply chains are similar to standard industry practices, we can say that a lot of antibiotics are being used.”

That will no longer be the case, although according to the McDonald’s press release, the company will “continue to responsibly use ionophores,” which are a type of antibiotic that aren’t used to treat humans.

“If fewer chickens get sick” thanks to the judicious use of the drugs, Marion Gross, senior vice president of the chain’s North America supply chain, said in a press release, “then fewer chickens need to be treated with antibiotics that are important in human medicine. We believe this is an essential balance.”

The chain will be “working with our suppliers to verify that the chicken used in our menu is raised without antibiotics” through the USDA Process Verified program, Terri Hickey, a McDonald’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email. In other words, USDA will act as the third party, ensuring that farms are following the new McDonald’s standards.

Stashwick said the only downside to the announcement is that it only applies to U.S. locations. Furthermore, McDonald’s Global Vision for Antibiotics Stewardship plan also released Wednesday—“Preserving antimicrobial effectiveness in the future through ethical practices today”—included the same loophole as the FDA regulations, allowing for prophylactic usage.

Still, the groups that started the dialogue in 2013—and those that have joined in the past years, including Consumer Union, Friends of the Earth, and the Food Animal Concern Trust—and who work on antibiotics and farm-animal issues agree that McDonald’s move marks significant progress.

“If that standard becomes the new floor for the chicken industry—and I feel that this could be a tipping point for that, at least in the U.S.—that would be a big step forward,” Stashwick said.