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McDonald’s and others get failing grades in beef antibiotic use

In the chilly winds of Chicago outside of McDonald’s Corporate Headquarters on West Randolph Street, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund presented the company with a failing grade for continuing to purchase beef with antibiotics.

“We cannot afford to risk losing life-saving medicines to produce a slightly cheaper burger,” said Matt Wellington, antibiotics program director for U.S.PIRG, an independent public research group that advocates for consumers. “In many cases meat producers will use the drugs [antibiotics] routinely on animals that are not sick to compensate for industrial farming practices,” he said.

McDonald’s was not the only company to receive a failing grade on this matter. Out of the 25 fast food chains surveyed, 22 received “F”s – including Burger King, Sonic, Jack in the Box, and Whataburger.

Wendy’s avoided the “F” grade and received a “D-” for committing to purchase 15 percent of its beef from farmers that have reduced the use of tylosin, an antibiotic. Only two chains received an “A” from PIRG: Stake Shack and BurgerFi. Both companies refuse to serve beef fed with antibiotics.

The study, which was released on Wednesday, advocates for the reduction of antibiotics in beef-cattle. Farmers often feed their herds antibiotics during the last year of their lives to help them digest grain and soybeans, which the cattle’s digestive systems are not equipped to process properly. The antibiotics aid in digestion.

“When using antibiotics for this purpose, it produces an increased resistance,” said Peter Orris, professor and chief of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Orris and other public health intelligentsia are concerned that repetitive consumption of antibiotic-fed beef will lead to the weakening of antibiotics necessary to fight diseases.

McDonald’s has announced an antibiotic stewardship vision for the future, but has not implemented a timeline for it beyond their chicken suppliers. “We’ve been waiting for operational steps far too long,” Orris said.

“Preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics for future generations is highly important to McDonald’s,” a company spokeswoman wrote in an email Wednesday.

“In 2016, McDonald’s fully implemented its pledge to no longer serve chicken treated with antibiotics important to human medicine in its US restaurants, which led to the 2018 implementation of an antibiotic use policy for broiler chicken in markets around the globe,” the spokeswoman said. The company is currently finalizing a global antibiotics policy for beef, to be announced before the end of 2018, she added.

PIRG’s call to action has support in the Illinois State Government. State Senator Daniel Biss called for action as well, touting a bill designed to restrict the feeding of antibiotics to beef-cattle to sick animals only. It also restricts such feeding to a 21-day period. The bill is still pending in the Legislature.

“We wouldn’t need this legislation if the major restaurants that sell the largest amount of beef simply chose to do the right thing,” he said. “There is no longer time to wait. It is time now to do the right thing, it is time now to stop purchasing beef that has been bred by the agricultural industry utilizing antibiotics for no medical reasons,” he said.

For Biss, it’s a personal matter. Since before his two children were born (a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old), “we’ve [he and his wife] thought carefully about the health consequences of the food that we fed them and what that would mean for their ability to grow safely,” he said.

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