It announced a policy yesterday (December 11) to reduce the overall use of antibiotics important to human health, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), which applies across 85% of its global beef supply chain.
“As the largest beef purchaser in the US, McDonald’s new commitment could spark an industry-wide change to help keep antibiotics effective,” said Matt Wellington, director, campaign to sop the overuse of antibiotics, US PRIG.
The antibiotic use policy for beef and dairy beef will be applied across the food service group’s top 10 beef sourcing countries which includes Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Ireland, Poland, UK, Canada, the US and Brazil.
The international restaurant chain said it understands that reducing the overall use of medically important antibiotics in beef is complex and will not be achieved overnight.
“Additionally, there is limited antibiotic usage data available across the global beef industry. That is why, in collaboration with our suppliers and beef producers, we are taking a strategic and phased approach.”
McDonald’s said it will, as a first step, collaborate with its beef suppliers in its top 10 beef sourcing markets to measure and understand current usage of antibiotics across a diverse, global supply chain.
The fast-food giant said it would establish regional pilot tests in order to begin the implementation of this policy:
“These pilot tests will establish a baseline use of medically important antibiotics in each market, and they will inform how we ultimately embed our requirements for Refine, Reduce and Replace into our beef sustainability strategy while we continue to gain a deeper understanding of the impacts on animal health and production associated with antibiotic use reduction in the beef and dairy beef supply chains.”
It said non-antibiotic or alternate technologies that replace antibiotic use in current cattle production systems could include the use of probiotics, vaccination programs, and immunomodulators.
By the end of 2020, based on what it has learned, it will establish reduction targets for medically important antibiotics for these markets. Starting in 2022, it said will report progress against antibiotic reduction targets across those top 10 beef sourcing markets.
Commitment to responsible antibiotics use
The food service group first developed a position on responsible antibiotics use in 2003. In 2016, McDonald’s US committed to serve only chicken not treated with antibiotics important to human medicine.
In 2017, the restaurant giant announced an expanded antibiotics policy for chicken in markets around the world, as well as a Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship statement with commitments to create responsible-use antibiotic approaches for beef, dairy beef and pork.
McDonald’s cited the WHO Guidelines on Use of Medically Important Antimicrobials in Food Producing Animals, released in November, 2017, as a basis for its responsible antibiotic use policy. Those guidelines state: “overuse and misuse of antibiotics in animals and humans is contributing to the raising threat of antibiotic resistance.”
The WHO delivered message has been taken seriously, particularly in the European Union (EU).
Many countries in the EU-28 have made a huge effort to reduce the overall use of antibiotics in farmed animals, through the creation of national reduction targets, implementation of mandatory bans of antimicrobial drugs in livestock feed, benchmarking antibiotic use at the farm level, and encouraging antibiotic stewardship.
Antibiotics use in agriculture and transmission of AMR to humans
However, many experts argue it is impossible to define the extent to which animal consumption of antibiotics drives antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in people.
Indeed, Wannes Vanderhaeghen and Jeroen Dewulf, both from Belgium’s Ghent University, writing in The Lancet Planetary Health in November last year, cautioned that care should be taken not to overly shift the focus of the problem of AMR in human beings on the use of antimicrobials in animals.
“It is important to call veterinary medicine to account for its role in the prevalence of human AMR, yet the exact role that the use of antimicrobials in animals has on human antimicrobial resistance is still insufficiently understood and should not be used to divert attention from the responsibilities in human medicine in relation to cautious antimicrobial use in humans.”
The two experts were assessing the seminal paper produced by Tang et al that informed the WHO guidelines.
That study, Restricting the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals and its associations with antibiotic resistance in food-producing animals and human beings: a systematic review and meta-analysis, concluded that interventions restricting antibiotic use in food-producing animals are associated with a reduction in the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these animals.
Tang et al said a smaller body of evidence suggests a similar association in the human populations studied, particularly those with direct exposure to food-producing animals.
“At minimum, the benefit appears to extend to farmers and those in direct contact with food-producing animals.
“The evidence of benefit for the general human population is less clear.”