McDonald’s chickens are going to contain fewer antibiotics, that’s what the American colossus promised in a recent press statement, the reason for the move, writes the San Bernardino-based company, is that ‘Antibiotic resistance is an important issue for people and animals’.
Antibiotic resistance is a phenomenon of increasing concern for the scientific community since the abuse of these drugs has contributed to the appearance of resistant bacteria to such an extent that we now need more and more new, increasingly effective antibiotics to cure diseases. It is a pity therefore that, as the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned, new antibiotics are fewer and farther between. If we were unable to find new ones, from 2050 simple infections and illnesses regarded as ‘obsolete’ could cause up to ten million deaths a year—even more than cancer—in which case the economic impact would be enormous. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least two million people in the United States are already being infected every year by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the cause of 23,000 deaths.
Constant antibiotic use on intensive livestock farms fuels the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance in meat consumers. This is why the famous fast food chain has banned its chicken suppliers from using what the WHO calls Highest Priority Critically Important Antibiotics (HPCIA) on their farms. The measure will be effectively implemented from January 2018 in Brazil, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the U.S., and Europe, with an exception for Europe only for colistin, the so-called ‘last resort’ antibiotic likely regarded as still being useful for avoiding some epidemics.
Colistin, however, is already under the radar of the European Commission, which has planned to cut its use in the veterinary sector by 65% over the next three to four years. The figures show that Italy and Spain record the highest levels of colistin in farm animals, but from 2019 Europe too must undertake to eliminate colistin in McDonald’s chickens, while in the same period HPCIAs are scheduled to be abandoned in Russia and Australia too. For all other suppliers the deadline will be 2027. In the meantime, the reduction in antibiotics use will also be extended to beef and pork, though the timescale is as yet unknown.
All of this simply comes as confirmation of just how much the intensive livestock farming sector producing meat for human consumption has abused drug use in recent years. For decades, scientists have asserted the existence of a strong link between antibiotic use in animals and the decreased effectiveness of such drugs in human medicine. It is also necessary to note that industrial chicken farmers have often used antibiotics —and continue to do so—not to treat epidemics on farms but to prevent them from breaking out or to help birds grow faster.
There’s no point in crying over spilt milk, as they say, so it’s better to look for the good points in the story. According to Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Union, the important US consumer protection organization, ‘If fully implemented [the McDonald’s decision] could be a total game changer that could transform the marketplace given the company’s massive buying power.’