McDonald’s this week announced a plan to source poultry raised without antibiotics important to human medicine. At the same time, the company also introduced its Global Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Food Animals, which implies McDonald’s will, over time, extend similar policies to its beef, dairy and pork supply chains.

In a news release, McDonald’s states that its chicken producers will retain the option of using ionophores, a class of antimicrobials not used in human medicine. In poultry, ionophores are primarily used to prevent and control coccidiosis, a protozoan disease which, at low levels, limits growth and feed efficiency and can damage the immune system. The company suggests use of ionophores, along with other practices intended to prevent or reduce disease incidence, will reduce the need for use of antibiotics for disease control or treatment.

According to the company, suppliers will continue to treat sick chickens as needed with prescribed antibiotics, but those treated birds will be removed from the company’s supply chain and marketed elsewhere.

In 2003, McDonald’s introduced a global policy on antibiotic use in food animals, and in 2014, the company assembled a team of veterinarians, physicians, academicians, clinical pharmacologists, epidemiologists, ethicists, animal health and welfare experts and other food animal production experts to develop recommendations for antimicrobial stewardship in food animals. Those recommendations influenced the company’s Global Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Food Animals, which includes four criteria to serve as goals for McDonald’s supply chains, including beef, dairy, pork and poultry:

I.                    Prohibit the use of antimicrobials in food animals that are by World Health Organization (WHO) definition “critically important” to human medicine, and not presently approved for veterinary use. (The Global Vision document includes the WHO lists of antimicrobials classified as important, highly important and critically important to human medicine.)

II.                  Classes of antimicrobials that are currently approved as dual use (for use in both human and veterinary medicine) for treatment or prevention of animal disease can only be used in conjunction with a veterinary-developed animal health care program.

III.                Prohibit the use of any medically important antimicrobials for growth promotion in food animals, as defined by WHO.

IV.                Utilize animal production practices that reduce, and where possible eliminate, the need for antimicrobial therapies and adopt existing best practices and/or new practices that would result in subsequent reductions of antimicrobial use. Successful strategies will be shared broadly.

With 14,000 restaurants in the United States, McDonald’s wields considerable influence over its food-supply chains. Vertical integration in the poultry industry, with well-defined supply chains, likely influenced McDonald’s decision to launch its initial antibiotic policy in poultry, but other food-animal supply chains are sure to follow.  

The company has, however, demonstrated a willingness to engage with a variety of stakeholders in developing its positions and policies regarding agricultural production. Earlier this week for example, McDonald’s was listed as a founding member of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB).

Based on recommendations from the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), the USRSB will work to identify sustainability indicators, establish verification methodologies and generate field project data to test and confirm sustainability concepts in U.S. beef production, focused on a balance of social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability.

In addition to McDonald’s, the 43 founding members of USRSB include such diverse entities as ranches, cattle feeders, state cattlemen’s associations, food wholesalers and retailers, animal-health companies, universities and environmental groups such as World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy. For the full list, see this article from Drovers CattleNetwork.