A Reason for Happier Meals at McDonald's: Fewer Antibiotics in Your Chicken

McDonald's has just gone global with its commitment to serve chicken free from antibiotics that are critically important to human health. Building on a similar phase-out in its US chicken supply in 2016, the company will ban critical antibiotic use from sourced chicken in a handful of high-income countries and Brazil in 2018, expanding to a longer list of “designated markets” by 2027. That's evidence of both the potential to reduce global antibiotic use in livestock and the vital role consumers can play in speeding progress.

For more about agriculture’s role in accelerating drug resistance, check out Kim Elliott’s new book, Global Agriculture and the American Farmer: Opportunities for US Leadership.

Widespread antimicrobial use accelerates the development of resistance, and the vast majority of current antibiotic use worldwide is in livestock—primarily to promote growth and prevent disease. Overall, antimicrobial resistance could be responsible for 10 million deaths a year by 2050. That’s why we're pushing for a global treaty to reduce antibiotic use in livestock. Our proposal is based on the successful model of the Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol governing the use of chlorofluorocarbons—which helped dramatically slash their use and protect the ozone layer.

Two vital elements behind the ozone agreements were consumer pressure alongside industry leadership. In response to consumer demand, industry replaced ozone-depleting aerosol spray cans with pump spray containers. This proved to be relatively inexpensive and showed that change was possible. As pressures to do more mounted, industry invested in new technologies and approaches that replaced chlorofluorocarbon use in refrigerators, car air conditioners, and elsewhere. The equivalent of the aerosol can in the case of livestock antibiotic use is poultry. It turns out that feeding antibiotics to chickens doesn’t improve productivity as much as it used to. Some studies suggest that farmers can even save money by foregoing feed laced with antibiotics.

Enter McDonald's, with 36,900 restaurants spread across 120 countries. The restaurant chain is famously concerned with prices—it practices “cost leadership” in management-guru-speak. That means it wouldn’t take on the challenge of reducing antibiotic use in its poultry supply unless the company was convinced both that it wouldn’t significantly raise the price of a McNugget and that it would be valued by customers. With this latest move, senior management at the fast food chain think that’s likely to apply across its operations worldwide.

And as the world’s second largest purchaser of chicken (after KFC), its buying power has significant potential to transform markets globally. The new company policy will take effect in countries like China and Brazil whose livestock sectors are among the top three consumers of antibiotics in the world. (We did notice, however, that others like India and Mexico—where use is currently high and projected to increase further—didn’t make McDonald's list.)

McDonald's is not the only one taking action. As of June 2017, 11 of the 15 top US fast food chains had committed to phasing out routine antibiotic use in their chicken supplies. And the six largest US school districts—Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade, New York City, and Orlando County—announced that they would demand antibiotic-free chicken when they next renew contracts with food vendors. In turn, poultry producers such as Perdue are reducing or eliminating antibiotic use in their flocks. This is only the start—and beef and pork both present larger challenges—but the move to antibiotic-free sourcing could have far-reaching global implications.

Customers are pushing the food industry to act based on a range of motivations beyond concerns with global antimicrobial resistance, including fear of consuming antibiotic residues and awareness of animal welfare issues. But whatever their reasons, they are making a difference. And if more companies follow in McDonald’s footsteps that would help set the stage for worldwide cooperation against a major health threat. So, this really is a case where it makes sense to think local about a global issue. Next time, before you order, ask ‘is it antibiotic-free?’


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 USDA/Lance Cheung