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McDonald’s vows to serve more antibiotic-free meat, targeting beef and pork

McDonald’s said Wednesday it aims to serve up more antibiotic-free meat at its restaurants around the world.

The world’s largest burger chain said it will work toward limiting the use in cattle and pigs of antibiotics important to human medicine, a significant move because McDonald’s is the biggest purchaser of beef in the country and one of the largest buyers of pork.

It also said it will stop using chickens raised with antibiotics important to human medicine within 10 years around the world. The Oak Brook-based burger chain, which has 14,000 U.S. restaurants and 36,000 locations worldwide, last year phased out that type of chicken meat in the U.S.

McDonald’s suppliers are still allowed to use a type of antibiotic not used to treat humans, called ionophores.

Phasing out the use of antibiotics used in human medicine is critical, experts say, because of growing resistance and fear of massive public health issues. Many restaurant chains have made promises to curb their use of meat that contains antibiotics, which on large industrial farms are often used routinely in animal feed. McDonald’s, in making its commitment, said that while it would work to stop routine use of these drugs, it would continue to allow suppliers to use them on animals when they’re sick.

“The misuse of antibiotics and the rise of resistant bacteria is a worldwide health problem, not just a U.S. problem,” said Matthew Wellington, antibiotics program director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “We’re glad that McDonald’s is working to preserve the effectiveness of these lifesaving medicines globally, and hope the chain moves quickly to make that vision a reality.”

At least 2 million Americans become sick and 23,000 die every year from antibiotic-resistant infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seventy percent of the medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to healthy livestock to prevent disease on industrial farms, according to Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports.

McDonald’s, in a meeting earlier this month with consumer and environmental organizations, said it “hopes to have a timeline soon for reducing medically important antibiotics from its beef,” according to

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. McDonald’s plans to focus first on beef produced in 10 countries, representing 85 percent of the company’s supply, Halloran said.

McDonald’s has said in the past that curbing the use of antibiotics in its beef and pork supply would be much more difficult than chicken because of the way it buys its meat. The chain has only two main U.S. chicken suppliers, but it buys beef from thousands of ranchers, each with an average of just 50 cows. Also, chickens are slaughtered much sooner than cows and pigs, leaving far less opportunity for them to get sick and require antibiotics.

The process of removing antibiotics from its supply has been a long one: It’s been 14 years since McDonald’s first began focusing on antibiotic use in food animals. In 2015, it released a Global Vision for Antibiotics. That year, it first made a commitment to clean up its poultry supply. Last year, it stopped serving at U.S. restaurants meat from chickens raised with antibiotics important to human medicine, nine months ahead of its original deadline.

sbomkamp@chicagotribune.com

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