Big Chickens and McDonald's Burgers in the Global Spotlight

October 02, 2017

Since Charles, Janeen, and I last wrote about the links between drug-resistant superbugs and antibiotic use in livestock, there has been a slew of new interesting, terrifying, and informative things to read on the topic. And they all underscore the need for a global approach to reduce agricultural use of antibiotics to promote animal growth and prevent disease in large, concentrated feeding operations. We offered initial ideas on the essential elements of a global treaty here. You can also read more about the problem, and the steps taken thus far to address it, in my new CGD book, Global Agriculture and the American Farmer: Opportunities for US Leadership.

In a recent blog post on the topic, my colleagues and I applauded McDonald's decision to (gradually) extend its US-only policy of eliminating the use of medically important antibiotics among its chicken suppliers in countries around the world. That was not enough, however, to raise its grade from a C+ for the coalition of consumer, health, and environmental groups that just put out its third report card on antibiotic policies at the 25 largest US fast food chains. Since this is a global problem, McDonald's should have received a bit more credit for going global with its policy, even if it is lagging (like most other chains) on reducing antibiotic use among its beef and pork suppliers. You can find out how your favorite chain does here.

Also out recently is Maryn McKenna's new book, Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats. She explores the history of feeding antibiotics to chickens (and other livestock) to promote faster growth—a practice that paved the way for the industrial agricultural production model prevalent in much of the world today. You can read an excerpt of the book on the NPR website

What's even scarier is how intensive livestock operations are spreading around the world, alongside rising demand for meat in the rapidly growing emerging markets of Brazil, India, and, especially, China. In a new article in Science magazine, Thomas Van Boeckel and colleagues estimate the consumption of antimicrobial drugs by food animals around the world—this involves statistical modeling because few countries collect this type of data. The authors also project that antibiotic use in livestock production will grow by some 50 percent by 2030, to more than 200,000 metric tons, if nothing is done. Finally, they explore how various policies, or combinations of policies, could constrain this growth by as much as 80 percent. The policies they examine include a cap on the permissible amount of antibiotics that could be used (per animal), a tax on veterinary drugs of concern, and reductions in meat consumption. 

Each of these policy options for reducing antibiotic use in livestock has pros and cons in terms of how easily it could be implemented, what the distributional effects among rich and poor countries would be, and how effective it would be. As a first step, international cooperation would be necessary to effectively implement any of these policies, and our proposal for a global treaty provides a useful framework for how to do that. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Social media image by Errin