McDonald's Is Removing Human Antibiotics From Its Chicken. Here's Why That's Good News For All Of Us

03/04/2015 12:57 pm ET
Bloomberg via Getty Images

McDonald's announced on Wednesday that within the next two years, U.S. restaurants will stop serving chicken raised with antibiotics that are used to fight human infections. Even if you're not a McDonald's customer, that's good news.

"For public health, this is really a game changer," Gail Hansen, a senior officer for Pew Charitable Trusts' antibiotic resistance project, told Reuters, and a move that could potentially influence other major players in the food industry.

Antibiotics in food animals are one contributing factor to the growing number of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs", which are estimated to infect and kill up to 10 million people worldwide by 2050 if more serious action isn't taken to stop them.

These "superbugs" are a class of mutated microbes, generally bacteria, that has evolved as they multiply to outsmart the very drugs we use to fight the infections they cause. Experts say that overuse of antibiotics is a major factor in the proliferation of such drug-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotics are often given to the animals we eat to help them gain weight quickly -- a measure to increase the volume of a farm's output and, by extension, its revenue. But the evidence against this practice is compelling: A particular strain of drug-resistant E. coli that has been linked to urinary tract infections may have originated in chickens. Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria, which can both cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramping, grow resistant to antibiotics primarily because they are used in animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's why officials recommend that farmers only use antibiotics that are crucial to human health to treat infectious disease in food animals, not to make them plumper.

In a 2013 report, Consumer Reports found "superbugs" in about half of chicken samples at supermarkets. Shoppers should look for the words "no antibiotics added" on meat and poultry products, according to the USDA.

McDonald's is not the only eatery moving away from antibiotics in its poultry. Chick-Fil-A made a similar announcement in early 2014. And later that year, six of the largest U.S. school districts vowed to move toward antibiotic-free chicken over the next several years.

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