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McDonald's Axes Chicken and Milk Treated With Human Antibiotics

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This is a wake-up call for the fast food industry.

McDonald's/Facebook

In a bold move, McDonald's will stop selling chicken treated with antibiotics in all of its 14,000 U.S. locations. Reuters writes that McDonald's is attempting to satisfy a growing population of consumers that is both curious about the ingredients in their food and interested in healthier options. The company also promises to stop using milk that comes from cows who have been treated with the artificial growth hormone rBST, which results in the production of more milk in a shorter period of time. As Reuters notes, this is "the most aggressive step by a major food company to force chicken producers to change practices in the fight against dangerous 'superbugs.'" The new directive begins at the hatchery: chicks will no longer be injected with antibiotics while still in the shell.

Mike Andres, U.S. president of the fast-food chain, explained the decision: "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."

This marks a "tipping point for antibiotic use in the poultry industry."

The change is radical for a number of reasons, notably because McDonald's was among the first major American fast food chains to encourage and accept antibiotic use from their farmers. McDonald's growth — and the growth of their farmer partners — can be traced back to the successful use of antibiotics on livestock and poultry farms. The change will take place over the next two years and will certainly have a massive impact on the poultry industry.

Eater spoke with Maryn McKenna, author of the book SUPERBUG and a contributor to Wired and National Geographic, who said:

It's clear that consumers have been asking for antibiotic-free chicken - the success of Chipotle and the reaction to Chick-fil-A's 2014 decision to go antibiotic-free both demonstrate that - but my sense is that agriculture has been waiting for a really big buyer to endorse to the move away from routine antibiotic use, and McDonalds is about as big as it gets. I'm not an economic analyst, but it seems possible this could be a market-shifting move.

That's important because the concern behind pushing for antibiotic-free meat is that routine use of antibiotics contributes to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which move off farms to sicken humans. The less antibiotics are used, the less evolutionary pressure there will be on bacteria to develop resistance, and the fewer health risks there will be for animals or humans.

Jonathan Kaplan, the Natural Resources Defense Council's food and agriculture program director, agreed, noting that this game-changing move could signal a "tipping point for antibiotic use in the poultry industry. McDonald's has so much purchasing power and brand recognition, I think we're seeing a new industry standard here."

Brandon Wang/Flickr

While this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, there are exceptions to McDonald's new policy. The company will continue to buy poultry from farmers who use animal antibiotics like ionophores (feed additives used to increase feed efficiency and body weight gain). Also, this new directive does not currently apply to any of the company's 22,000 international restaurants.

McDonald's latest announcement comes on the heels of its most recent marketing campaign: "Our food. Your questions." The company hired Mythbusthers co-host Grant Imahara to go behind the scenes at several McDonald's processing plants to show what kind of "real food" went into its highly processed dishes. McDonald's promise to omit human antibiotics from the chicken and milk it uses has been met with surprise among the food science, business, and restaurant community.

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