McDonald’s announced it’s phasing out chicken with antibiotics over the next two years in its U.S. restaurants. Considering the volume of chicken that McDonald’s buys from suppliers (think about all those McNuggets), this seems like a significant announcement for our food and health system in general. Here’s why.

Until 2008, farmers were not required to report the amount of antibiotics given to animals raised for food. In 2009, when the numbers were finally released, the FDA revealed that 28.7 millions pounds of antibiotics were given to livestock each year. The majority of those antibiotics weren’t given to sick animals. Eighty-three percent of the antibiotics were given as a preventative measure to keep animals kept in crowded, unsanitary conditions from making each other ill.

The overuse of antibiotics in livestock has made the use of antibiotics in humans less effective, studies show. The World Health Organization says that seven strains of bacteria have become somewhat or completely resistant to antibiotics — and the consequences of that could be severe. Some diseases like bloodstream infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections and gonorrhea do not respond to antibiotics the way they used to and have become more difficult to treat.

The FDA made an attempt to curb the overuse of antibiotics in animals in 2012 when it ruled that farmers and ranchers must have “a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in farm animals, in hopes that more judicious use of the drugs will reduce the tens of thousands of human deaths that result each year from the drugs’ overuse.”

The ruling was more of a strong suggestion than an enforceable law, and by 2014, it was clear that the FDA was not invested in the ruling when several consumer advocacy groups wanted the FDA to hold hearings to review the scientific evidence showing the harm of overuse of antibiotics in livestock. The FDA said it didn’t want to have the hearings, and a court said it couldn’t force the agency to do so.

So it looks like it’s up to consumers to demand change. McDonald’s is making a change in part because consumers are now aware of the dangers with the overuse of antibiotics in livestock and want it out of their food.

"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," said McDonald's U.S President Mike Andres.
In addition to chicken sourced without antibiotics, McDonald’s will also offer rbST-free milk with no artificial growth hormones.  

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.