McDonald’s Corp. has announced a new policy on beef antibiotics that affects 85% of its global supply chain. It’s intended to reduce the use of antibiotics that are important to human health. Because of the chain’s massive buying power, the plan has the potential to change practices for the beef industry overall.
As consumers have grown increasingly concerned with how their food is made, they have demanded a number of changes, including antibiotic-free meat and poultry. Scientists say the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is behind the growing global problem of antimicrobial resistance — the ability of microorganisms to resist antibiotics and other treatments, rendering them ineffective.
The chain has been on a mission to clean up its menu since Steve Easterbrook took the helm in 2015. In September, McDonald’s said it would get rid of some preservatives and fake colors from its burgers. It switched to fresh, instead of frozen, beef for its Quarter Pounders this year and removed artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets in 2016.
Because of its scale, with about 37,000 restaurants worldwide, McDonald’s purchasing changes — even small ones — can have major ramifications for the industry. When it nixed margarine from its Egg McMuffins, it sent suppliers into overdrive to make and ship millions of pounds of butter across the country.
The announcement includes three benchmarks for the fast food chain: measuring current antibiotics usage in its top 10 beef sourcing countries, setting reduction targets for medically important antibiotics by the end of 2020, and requiring that suppliers report progress in meeting those targets starting in 2022.
Antibiotics are frequently used in animal agriculture for two main reasons: to prevent the spread of disease and to promote the animal’s growth. Based on available data, about 70% of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in animal agriculture, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. McDonald’s already committed to removing antibiotics important to human health from its chicken supply chains in 2015 and met that goal in 2016, ahead of schedule.