McDonald’s menu during chief executive Steve Easterbrook tenure to date, which began in 2015, hasn’t been short on changes. And these fixes haven’t always been of the new-to-market product variety. Many of the updates, like fresh beef Quarter Pounders, are behind-the-scenes upgrades designed to carry McDonald’s into a healthier, more sustainable future. Beyond the environmental concerns, this is also where a growing number of consumers are headed. Unquestionably, it will be where Gen Z lives.
About a year after the fresh beef announcement, McDonald’s said in September that it was removing artificial preservatives, flavors, and colors from seven of its classic burgers. Other recent commitments include pulling artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets and committing to serving cage-free eggs by 2025.
McDonald’s unveiled its latest push on December 11—a broad policy to reduce the overall use of antibiotics important to human health, as defined by the World Health Organization, which applies across 85 percent of McDonald’s global beef supply chain.
This is a complex undertaking. It will take the fast-food giant two years to even decide how much of the antibiotics important to human health it will be able to remove from beef. McDonald’s laid out a strategic and phased approach.
“McDonald’s believes antibiotic resistance is a critical public health issue, and we take seriously our unique position to use our scale for good to continue to address this challenge,” Keith Kenny, McDonald’s global VP of sustainability, said in a statement. “We are excited to partner with our beef supply chain around the world to accelerate the responsible use of antibiotics, whilst continuing to look after the health and welfare of those animals in our supply chain.”
One reason antibiotic use surfaces more in regards to chicken than beef is the fact cattle tend to live longer than chickens. As cited by The Wall Street Journal, 43 percent of the medically important antibiotics sold to the U.S. livestock sector go to the beef industry, compared with only 6 percent for chicken.
Wendy’s said earlier in the year it would source about 15 percent of its beef from a group of producers that have committed to a 20 percent reduction in antibiotics fed to their cattle. Chipotle and Panera Bread are among the other chains committed to reducing antibiotic use in beef.
McDonald’s said it developed the policy over a year and a half. It consulted with expert stakeholders from veterinarians to public health leaders to the beef producers “responsible for taking care of the health of animals within the supply chain every day.”
“Our overall approach to responsible use of antibiotics focuses on refining their selection and administration, reducing their use, and ultimately replacing antibiotics with long-term solutions to prevent diseases and protect animal health and welfare,” McDonald’s said. “With this in mind, we remain committed to treating animals when needed.”
The decision was lauded by members of the health industry. “We expect this to be the first of many commitments from food companies to purchase beef raised without medically important antibiotics; importantly, this means that the beef industry will need to change their practices to meet this growing demand,” said Christy Spees, environmental health program manager at As You Sow, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility, in a statement. Spees' company filed shareholder resolutions with McDonald's in 2016, 2017, and 2018 in partnership with Benedictine Sisters of Boerne, Texas, asking the chain to end the use of medically important antibiotics in its meat supply chains.
Added Spees: “There is still significant work to be done by food companies to curb the use of antibiotics. With McDonald’s leading the way, there is no reason why other major fast food chains should not follow with their own commitments to source responsibly raised beef."
McDonald’s first shared a position on responsible antibiotics use in 2003. In 2016, the U.S. side of the business reached its commitment to serve only chicken not treated with antibiotics important to human medicine nearly a year ahead of schedule. In 2017, the chain announced an expanded antibiotics policy for chicken in markets around the world, as well as a refreshed vision for antimicrobial stewardship statement with commitments to create responsible-use antibiotic approaches for beef, dairy beef, and pork.
“The path for creating and implementing a global antibiotic use policy for beef is unprecedented,” said Don Thompson, MS, PhD, DVM College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University. “I’ve been encouraged by the thoroughness with which McDonald’s has engaged diverse experts while creating this policy and the seriousness with which they take this important issue.”
Additionally, McDonald’s said it joined the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Antimicrobial Resistance Challenged. Launched in September, the AMRC Challenge is a yearlong effort to accelerate the fight against antimicrobial resistance.
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