CHICAGO — McDonald's has announced steps to reduce the use of antibiotics in its global beef supply, a major commitment from the nation's largest beef purchaser to address concerns about a rise in drug-resistant infections.
The Chicago-based fast-food giant said it is partnering with beef producers in its top 10 beef-sourcing markets to measure current antibiotic use, and by the end of 2020 will establish reduction targets in those markets. The markets, which represent 85 percent of McDonald's beef supply chain, will report progress starting in 2022, the company said.
"We believe this is an ambitious, industry-leading commitment that will help to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for human and animal health in the future," said spokeswoman Lauren Altmin.
Public health advocates hailed the announcement from McDonald's, whose size and influence have the potential to spark change across the beef industry.
"I think it's a promising step forward to preserve antibiotics," said Matthew Wellington, Antibiotics Program Director of U.S. PIRG and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a public interest research group. "We urge them to move quickly to accomplish the goals they lay out in this policy."
Use of antibiotics in livestock to not only treat sick animals but also prevent disease has raised concerns that overuse is causing more drug-resistant disease in humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated, conservatively, that 23,000 Americans die each year from antibiotic resistance, but other research puts the number much higher.
About 70 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in animal agriculture, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association in a statement said its farmers and ranchers are "continuously improving the way antibiotics are used in animals, because they care about how their practices impact cattle health as well as antibiotic safety and efficacy."
While many fast-food companies have reduced antibiotic use in chicken, far fewer have done so for beef, Wellington said. U.S. PIRG and several other public interest groups co-authored a report in October that graded 25 burger chains on their antibiotic use practices, and only Shake Shack and BurgerFi got A's for serving antibiotic-free beef.
McDonald's and most of its competitors got F's. Wendy's, which got a D-, this year began sourcing about 15 percent of its beef from producers that have pledged to reduce antibiotic use in their cattle by 20 percent, the company says on its website.
McDonald's new policy forbids the use of antibiotics that are medically important to humans in promoting growth or preventing disease in animals. If there is a high risk of contraction of a particular disease, antibiotics must be selected according to a tiered system that starts with those of least importance to human health. Animals can still be treated when they're sick.