Q&A: Why is McDonald's ditching chicken treated with antibiotics?

Five questions about McDonald's antibiotics announcement

McDonald's announced Wednesday its 14,000 U.S. restaurants will phase out the use of chickens raised with antibiotics by March 2017. Businesses have been under pressure from consumers and regulators to curtail the use of antibiotics in livestock and combat the rise of antibiotic-resistance among humans.

Farmers in McDonald's supply chain will not be allowed to use antibiotics that are important to humans, but they can still use ionophores, a type of antibiotic not used in human medicine.

The company said it will continue to treat ill animals with prescribed antibiotics but that poultry will no longer be allowed in its food supply.

Is McDonald's the first company to phase out antibiotics?

McDonald's is not the first business to roll back the use of antibiotics in its food-supply chain. Chick-fil-A Inc. said last year it would stop serving chicken raised with antibiotics in all of its U.S. restaurants within five years. The restaurant chain said Thursday more than 20% of its poultry supply was raised without antibiotics.

Meatpacker Tyson Foods Inc. says it has reduced antibiotics in its supply by 84% since 2011. Perdue Foods said in September it had removed antibiotics from all of its hatcheries. Chipotle uses antibiotic-free meat in its restaurants, though it sometimes sources from conventional meat when its usual supply is scarce.

Why is McDonald's doing this now?

The fast-food chain has been battling the perception its food is unhealthful as customers increasingly have turned to fast-casual chains such as Chipotle that emphasize "all-natural" ingredients.

Sales dipped in 2014 and McDonald's has said it will begin testing a simplified menu along with customized offerings to regain lost ground. The chain even released a series of videos starring a former host of the hit show "MythBusters" that showcased exactly how products like Chicken McNuggets are made.

Steve Easterbrook took over as chief executive this week and told investors he was attempting to turn the chain into a “modern, progressive burger company.”

Why are antibiotics used in livestock in the first place?

Antibiotics have been used to promote faster growth of farm animals. The Food and Drug Administration issued a voluntary order to livestock and poultry producers in 2013 banning the use of antibiotics to promote growth, though it still allowed the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals. Farms consume about 80% of the nation's antibiotics supply.

The FDA move followed a 2013 outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella linked to Foster Farms chicken from plants in central California that sickened nearly 400 people.

What effect will McDonald's move have?

Analysts and consumer advocates said that McDonald's announcement could influence not only other chains but chicken production as a whole. The chain purchased 3% to 4% of the 39 billion pounds of chicken produced in the U.S. last year, Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, told USA Today. Christopher Muller, a professor of hospitality at Boston University, told the newspaper that McDonald's was a "market maker" for chicken products.

What about other types of meat or poultry outside the U.S.?

Wednesday's announcement is limited only to poultry products within the United States; the company's beef and pork in the U.S. is not affected by the ban on antibiotics. McDonald's also this week announced that it would globally ban medically important antibiotics from being used to promote growth in livestock. But the company said it would still allow human antibiotics to treat and prevent diseases in all its livestock elsewhere in the world.

In an interview with The Times, Jonathan Kaplan, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's food and agriculture program, called the global disease prevention rule a "loophole" because suppliers can still use antibiotics to prevent diseases that arise from crowded and unsanitary conditions.

"Producers are using these antibiotics as a crutch to prop up that system," he said.

He urged McDonald's to expand its chicken rules to all livestock across the globe.

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