Three-piece Chicken Selects with sauce
McDonald's is working with its chicken suppliers to implement its new poultry antibiotics policy within the next two years..

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When McDonald's speaks, industry listens. The quick-service giant’s new chicken antibiotics policy made stakeholders in the antibiotics and food-producing animals debate take notice.

McDonald’s US announced on March 3 it will only buy chicken raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine. McDonald’s operates approximately 14,000 restaurants in the United States. The new policy is McDonald’s effort to address consumer concerns regarding antibiotic-resistant “super bugs,” according to the company. Tyson Foods Inc., a leading poultry producer, applauded the plan.

“We support McDonald’s decision and look forward to working with the company to meet its new standard,” the company said in a statement. “We believe in responsible chicken production and already limit the use of antibiotics in our chicken business.”

Tyson said the company’s chicken operations have reduced antibiotic use important to humans by more than 84 percent since 2011. "In addition,” Tyson noted, “we stopped using antibiotics at our 35 hatcheries last fall.”

McDonald's new policy on antibiotics only impacts poultry suppliers in the United States. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) urged McDonald's to extend its policy globally. However, NRDC applauded the new antibiotics initiative and acknowledged its significance.

McDonald's Chicken McNuggets
Farmers who supply chicken for McDonald's  will continue to use ionophores.

“This is a landmark announcement in the fight to keep life-saving antibiotics working for us and our children,” Jonathan Kaplan, director of the NRDC's Food and Agriculture program. “The country’s largest fast food chain has committed to working with their suppliers to keep these drugs out of the barns used to raise the chickens for their nuggets, salads and sandwiches.

“In doing so, they are setting the bar for the entire fast food industry. If these are verifiable, given this company’s massive purchasing power and iconic brand, we may be at a tipping point for better antibiotic stewardship in the poultry industry.”

Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., National Chicken Council vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, noted that the direct relationship between healthy chickens and a safe food supply makes raising healthy birds a top priority for farmers and poultry companies.

“Responsible, FDA-approved veterinary treatment and prevention benefits animal welfare and human health by reducing the need for increased doses of antibiotics in the event of widespread disease,” Peterson said.

“The vast majority of these antibiotics are never used in humans. McDonald's, veterinarians and animal scientists recognize their importance to minimize the use of those antibiotics that are important in human medicine.”

McDonald's Blitz Box, Kansas City Chiefs
The National Chicken Council is researching alternatives to antibiotics.

Under Food and Drug Administration guidance, Peterson said, by December 2016 antibiotics important to human health will be labeled for use in food animals only to treat sick livestock and birds and to prevent. Also, antibiotics will be used exclusively under the supervision and prescription of veterinarians, she added.

Tyson Foods said the company sometimes uses FDA-approved antibiotics in a small percentage of its flocks to treat or prevent disease. In those cases, antibiotics are used under the supervision of a veterinarian in order to ensure the health and welfare of the birds.

“We expect to continue reductions in our use of antibiotics that are effective in humans and encourage the industry to research alternatives,” Tyson said.

The announcement also comes on the heels of a federal Prevention of Antibiotic Resistance Act that would build on FDA's voluntary policy to eliminate antibiotic use for growth promotion. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the bill on March 2. The bill is cosponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).