You may have lots of reasons to skip the McNuggets — but before long, antibiotic resistance won't be one of them.
The fast-food giant McDonald's announced last week that it won't buy chicken for its 14,000 US locations from animals treated with antibiotics — a recognition of growing concern about the spread of bacteria that can withstand modern drugs.
"We're doing what we believe is right for our customers and animals and animal health, and really, more holistically, around human health," Justin Ransom, the senior director of quality systems for the company's US supply chain, told VICE News.
McDonald's has drawn praise for the move from some traditional critics of industrialized agriculture. But they're also quick to note that the move does little to improve the often-horrific conditions in the $45 billion US poultry industry.
Tens of thousands of animals are basically living in their own waste.
Public health officials and environmental activists have been raising concerns about the amount of drugs fed to livestock for years. Bacteria that survive an antibiotic onslaught can pass that resistance onto their progeny, raising the odds that a future infection will be harder to fight.
"We raise nine billion chickens in this country," public health veterinarian Gail Hansen, a senior officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts' antibiotic resistance project, told VICE News. "If you can stop using antibiotics for the most part in a good number of them, then you're really doing a lot for public health."
The Center for Food Safety, a watchdog group that's sharply critical of industrial farming, said McDonald's "raised the bar" for the restaurant industry. But Paige Tomaselli, the group's senior staff attorney, called the move "a baby step."
"On the whole, just recognizing that antibiotic resistance is a public health threat and that the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is causing problems is a step in the right direction," Tomaselli told VICE News. But she said industrial farms can't survive without antibiotics to control the spread of disease among tens of thousands of animals kept in close quarters, "basically living in their own waste."
So while drugs that are considered important to treat infections in humans will be removed, the industry is actually still using antibiotics. "They're using that as a crutch to hold up the factory farming system, which is not a good thing," Tomaselli said.
The concentration of farms into massive industrial livestock operations poses a variety of other problems as well, from figuring out what to do with tons of animal waste to the increased greenhouse emissions from mechanized agriculture and an industrializing world's growing taste for meat.
The chicken industry in particular has been widely criticized for everything from its treatment of animals to conditions in the plants, where the birds are gutted and processed for restaurants and supermarkets. Some farms house tens of thousands of chickens, which produce huge quantities of waste that's high in methane — a far more potent greenhouse gas over the short term than carbon dioxide — and ammonia, a corrosive, toxic contaminant.
"The waste is a huge problem. It's a different kind of problem from pig farms, but it's still very harmful for the environment," Tomaselli said.
Tests conducted in 2012 by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found nearly half of the chicken products bought from grocery chains in 10 cities were contaminated with fecal bacteria; the group also criticized the use of hazardous chlorine as a cleaning agent in processing plants.
Cameron Wells, a dietitian who leads the physician group's nutrition education program, told VICE News that as many as 140 chickens are processed each minute at some plants.
"They have that big volume and they're all so close together it's virtually impossible to have any clean end products," Wells said.
"To think of that number, it kind of brings to mind that old Lucy skit where she's examining chocolates or something and it's just loading up and loading up and everything's flying by," she added. "That's kind of what these plants look like when you're looking at that number of birds per minute."
All that to consume a food whose consumption "has been linked to all kinds of chronic diseases, heart disease, diabetes, obesity," Wells said. "It really is hard to justify on either end of the spectrum."
Eliminating human-important antibiotics was a major recommendation of a Pew commission on industrial agriculture in 2009, said Bernard Rollin, a Colorado State University professor who sat on that panel. Rollin told VICE News that concerns about antibiotic resistance began appearing in medical journals as early as 1946, and that reducing their use is less of an issue of animal rights than of human welfare.
Rollin, a philosophy professor who specializes in animal welfare issues, said antibiotics are among the "technological sanders" used in mechanized agriculture "to force square pegs into round holes." But he said the cost of those technological fixes may no longer be worth it in an era when many consumers have shown they're willing to pay extra for better-quality groceries.
"I don't know and I don't think anybody knows whether, if you like, American ingenuity can go back to natural circumstances in a cost-effective way, but they should at least try," he said. "I mean, why do people spend all that goddamn money on organics?"
The McDonald's announcement follows a similar pledge by the 1,200-restaurant chain Chick-fil-A, which announced in 2014 that its birds would be antibiotic-free in five years.
Poultry-producing giants Perdue and Tyson have announced plans to reduce their reliance on antibiotics as well.
McDonald's has become the largest chicken buyer in the restaurant industry, and its decision is likely to push other industry players toward similar moves, Hansen said.
"I think competitors in the food industry will be looking at this and thinking, 'Should we be doing this as well?'" she said.
Ransom said the new policy is "a very direct communication" to McDonald's beef and pork producers as well.
"We're already engaged in planning conversations about how we'll make a more meaningful impact in other protein categories," he said.
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