McDonald’s Moving to Limit Antibiotic Use in Chickens
Customer visits to McDonald’s restaurants in the United States have declined two years in a row. Credit Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
McDonald’s said on Wednesday that it would begin using chickens that are not raised with antibiotics used to treat humans, a move likely to put pressure on competitors of the fast-food chain, which now sells more chicken than beef.
The decision by McDonald’s, which is also one of the largest buyers of chicken in the United States, is likely to have a major impact on how poultry is raised and on the kinds of chicken restaurants serve.
The shift toward offering chicken that is largely antibiotic-free is to occur over two years, the company said. McDonald’s also announced that this year it would give customers the choice of low-fat and chocolate milk from cows not treated with the artificial growth hormone rBST.
McDonald’s announcement coincided with Steve Easterbrook’s first week as its chief executive. But the struggling company declined to provide access to Mr. Easterbrook, who succeeded Don Thompson as chief, or to other executives to speak about the new policy, citing the “quiet period” required by federal regulation before the release of its financial performance report next week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been increasingly vocal about its concerns about the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry as more bacteria and pathogens have shown resistance to such drugs. It estimated in 2013 that at least two million Americans fall sick each year because of antibiotic-resistant infections and at least 23,000 die from them.
The use of a class of antibiotics important in human medicine by farmers raising animals for food increased 16 percent from 2009 to 2012, according to a report by the Food and Drug Administration — although the agency found that sales of the drugs for that purpose had declined somewhat during that period. The government’s concern has caught the attention of consumers, and food companies and restaurants are increasingly using “antibiotic-free” labels as a marketing tool that sometimes allows them to command a higher price.
“The last time McDonald’s did something like this, five other fast-food companies made similar announcements within six months,” said Steven Roach, food safety program director for Food Animal Concerns Trust, one of the advocacy groups involved in the coalition Keep Antibiotics Working. “I would expect we’re going to see a similar pattern this time around.”
Wendy’s and Burger King said their policies prohibited the use of antibiotics to promote growth. McDonald’s said its suppliers could still use ionophores, additives used to increase feed efficiency and body weight gain in animals, which are less controversial.
The National Chicken Council said in a statement that a “vast majority” of antibiotics used for disease prevention in the industry were never given to humans. “Chicken producers have a vested interest in protecting the effectiveness of antibiotics for the welfare of their animals,” the council, a trade group, said. “As such, we’ve proactively and voluntarily taken steps toward finding alternative ways to control disease while reducing antibiotic use.”
Ariane Daguin, the founder and chief executive of D’Artagnan, which sells high-end meat, poultry, game and truffles, said that the move by McDonald’s was significant but that “the devil is in the details.”
“To stop using only those antibiotics that ‘are important to human medicine’ does not mean much,” Ms. Daguin said. “It is important to understand what antibiotic-free really means and the need to eliminate all antibiotics to prevent antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
In January, the International Production & Processing Expo, billed as “the world’s largest annual poultry, feed and meat technology exposition,” devoted a panel to antibiotic-free poultry production. An industry consultant who participated said that antibiotic-free chicken was no longer a niche business.
“I think in a few years, one-third of chicken and turkey will be antibiotic-free,” the consultant, Richard Kottmeyer, managing director of Strategic, an agricultural consulting firm, said, according to a report on WATTAgNet.com. “The problem then is the other 66 percent of consumers will be resenting the fact that their chicken isn’t antibiotic-free.”
Last September, Perdue became the first major United States poultry company to say it was no longer using antibiotics in its hatcheries, one of the last parts of its production process where the drugs were still in use. A month later, Tyson Foods made a similar announcement, although unlike Perdue, Tyson still uses antibiotics for disease prevention.
And a year ago, Chick-fil-A, the fast-growing fast-food chicken business, said it was no longer using chicken treated with antibiotics. Panera has used meat raised without antibiotics for more than a decade.
McDonald’s is somewhat late to the game, in part because its size makes it difficult to establish supply chains that can fulfill the demand in its 14,000 United States restaurants. It took the company two years, for example, to establish enough contracts to supply it with cucumbers when it added them to its menu several years ago. The company first announced a policy limiting its chicken suppliers’ use of antibiotics in 2003, but it had done little to update it over the years, Mr. Roach said.
McDonald’s latest move coincides with its “Your Questions, Our Food” marketing campaign, in which it answers questions such as whether the eggs it uses are freshly cracked and how it cooks its beef patties. Mr. Easterbrook, the new chief, used a similar program to help turn around the McDonald’s business in Britain.
He is meeting this week with McDonald’s franchisees and suppliers to present what he has called the Turnaround Agenda. One of the seven “Big Actions” he plans is to “win” with the company’s food by, among other things, improving taste and giving consumers food they can “feel good about” eating, like chicken raised without antibiotics.
While scores of advocates applauded Wednesday’s announcement, they were already preparing for another battle with the company over the use of antibiotics in beef production. Last year, McDonald’s pledged to begin buying “verified sustainable” beef by 2016, but Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a Democrat from upstate New York who has long taken an interest in food and agricultural issues, sent the company a letter in January, saying she was “disappointed” in the criteria for determining what beef would qualify.
Those standards were developed by the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef, a business group of which McDonald’s is a member, and were condemned as “fundamentally flawed” and “toothless” by advocacy groups in favor of eliminating antibiotic use in beef. “The failure to include meaningful restrictions on antibiotic use in the agreed-upon standards calls into question McDonald’s commitment to ending the misuse of antibiotics and could contradict its own policy,” Ms. Slaughter wrote.
Article Source: The New York Times
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