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McDonald's cuts antibiotics in chicken. Why more restaurants will follow

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Mark Duncan/AP

(Read caption) An order of McDonald's Chicken McNuggets in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, Wednesday, March 4, 2015. McDonald's says it plans to start using chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine and milk from cows that are not treated with the artificial growth hormone rbST.

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They call them “industry leaders” for a reason.

Just as Wal-Mart may have effectively raised the national minimum wage last month by giving pay raises to nearly half its workers, McDonald’s made moves Wednesday that should mean wholesale changes to how the US food industry sources poultry.

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The fast food giant will phase out chicken raised with antibiotics “important to human medicine” from its US restaurants over the next two years. That's the biggest of the changes to the company’s domestic supply chain. McDonald’s will also start offering regular and chocolate milk from cows that aren’t treated with the artificial growth hormone rbST.

"Our customers want food that they feel great about eating – all the way from the farm to the restaurant – and these moves take a step toward better delivering on those expectations," McDonald's US President Mike Andres said in the announcement.

The poultry industry has been moving steadily away from antibiotics over the past few years. Suppliers like Perdue and Tyson have sharply reduced their usage; Tyson says it has reduced antiobiotics also used in human medicine in its supply by 84 percent since 2011. In February 2014, Chick-fil-A, which sells the most chicken of any restaurant chain in the country, pledged to go completely antibiotic-free within five years. But with 14,000 US locations to stock, McDonald’s is one of the biggest poultry buyers in the country – it buys more chicken than beef. Its reforms could prove a tipping point for the rest of the restaurant industry, making it more affordable for smaller restaurant businesses to make the switch as lower antibiotic use becomes more the norm among suppliers. 

“McDonald’s is a major player,” says Gail Hansen, a public health veterinarian and senior officer of antibiotic resistance with Pew Charitable Trusts, in a phone interview. “Economically, other companies will say: 'We can follow this model.' ”

The meat and poultry industries have used antibiotics also used in human medicine for decades a way of speeding up growth of food animals. The practice has recently come under fire from consumers and public health officials, who say that overuse could lead to dangerous strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As Dr. Hansen notes, the move away from such methods is becoming a near-necessity from a business standpoint as consumers become more conscientious about where their food comes from.

McDonald’s is no exception. Wednesday’s announcement comes at a tumultuous time for the company, which has faced falling sales and dwindling customers for years, due to increased competition, a changing industry, and an unshakeable (and acknowledged) two-pronged image problem. As the world’s largest hamburger chain, McDonald’s, more than other fast food chains, serves as a de facto target of blame for diet-based public health concerns like obesity and heart disease. As the third-largest employer in the US, it, along with retailer Wal-Mart, has also become the prime focus of a series of widespread protests calling for better treatment of low-wage workers. Wal-Mart’s announcement of worker pay hikes last month puts the pressure squarely on McDonald’s and the rest of the fast food industry to make a move.

In the face of such problems, McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson resigned last month. His replacement, Steve Easterbrook, took over earlier this week, vowing to turn the chain into a “modern, progressive burger company,” in a recent call with investors. Like Wal-Mart, its recent reforms are a response to the general direction its industry is headed. But by making them, McDonald’s, like Wal-Mart, is helping its industry get there even faster.