McDonald’s policy propels changes in chicken production

Biologist Mark Jenkins (left) and zoologist Ray Fetterer observe 1-day-old broiler chicks ingesting gelatin beads containing the vaccine for coccidiosis. The broiler chicken industry is phasing out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.

The broiler chicken industry is phasing out all but the most critical uses of antibiotics in its flocks as McDonald’s restaurants have become the latest major buyer to set policies against their use, an industry group says.

McDonald’s announced last week that it will only source chicken that is raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine and that the policy will be fully implemented in two years. Ionophores, a class of antibiotics not used for humans, could still be fed to birds to keep them healthy.

The fast-food chain is “a big player,” representing about 4 percent of the market for broiler chickens, said Tom Super, a National Chicken Council spokesman. Since its policy will allow the use of ionophores, it won’t have as large an impact on costs to growers, he said in an email.

“Most of the industry has been moving away from medically important antibiotics for growth promotion for several years since the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) guidance came out,” Super said. “The majority of the antibiotics used by chicken producers are ‘animal-only.’

“Antibiotics are only one tool that chicken producers can use to ensure optimal health,” he said. “They’re not a silver bullet.”

After December 2016, antibiotics will only be used to treat or prevent a specific, targeted disease, Super said. A veterinarian will prescribe a preventive use if there is evidence of a threat from a disease or bacterium, he said.

Chicken producers are concerned about animal welfare and have “proactively and voluntarily taken steps toward finding alternative ways to control disease while reducing antibiotic use,” asserts Ashley Peterson, the NCC’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs.

Chicken producers are among many farmers and ranchers who have been changing the way they care for their livestock as increasing regulation and consumer awareness bring more scrutiny to the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.

New FDA guidelines issued in December 2013 have effectively eliminated use of the drugs for growth promotion or feed efficiency. The FDA is now revising its Veterinary Feed Directive to expand veterinarians’ role in administering antibiotics for illness or prevention.

McDonald’s and other fast-food chains have been trying to shed their “junk-food” image by offering items with simpler ingredient labels and fewer chemicals. McDonald’s announced it will also switch to milk from cows that are not treated with the artificial growth hormone rBST later this year.

The world’s biggest hamburger chain has been working aggressively to stop a slide in global sales amid a shift in consumers’ tastes and intensifying competition. The company replaced its chief executive officer this month and held a “Turnaround Summit” for U.S. franchises in an effort to reinvigorate restaurant operators, The Associated Press reported.

The restaurant’s changes follow an announcement in December by the Los Angeles Unified School District and districts in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Miami-Dade and Orlando, Fla., that they would apply an antibiotic-free standard for companies to follow when supplying chicken products to their schools.

Costco, which sells 80 million rotisserie chickens a year, is working toward eliminating the sale of chicken and meat from other animals raised with antibiotics that are vital to fighting human infections, senior executives told Reuters last week.

As it is, however, chicken raised without antibiotics represented less than 3 percent of the market in 2013, although the percentage has likely increased, Super has said. In 2013, of the nearly 8 billion chickens produced in the United States, only 226 million — or 2.84 percent — were raised antibiotic-free, according to USDA data.

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