America’s largest chicken producer will follow McDonald’s in eliminating human antibiotics

Less antibiotics in more chicken.
Less antibiotics in more chicken.
Image: AP/April Brown
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In March, the fast food giant McDonald’s announced that it would work with suppliers to stop using antibiotics important to humans in its chicken. Now Tyson Foods, a top supplier to McDonald’s for decades and the largest meat processor in the United States, has announced that it is planning to wholly eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its chickens in the US by September 2017.

Tyson says it is looking into reducing antibiotic use in other animals this summer, and plans to eventually take similar measures internationally.

The move speaks to American consumers’ increasing concerns about what they eat, and the overwhelming medical consensus that overuse of antibiotics in meat production is helping to create dangerous drug-resistant bacterias.

But it also speaks to the sheer weight that McDonald’s wields as a company, even as it struggles.

Tyson’s move may have been in the works for some time. The company says that it has been working to reduce antibiotic use since 2011, though a recent Reuters investigation found the practice was still widespread over the past two years. In any case, an enormous and powerful customer such as McDonald’s insisting that it make these changes in a relatively short time period likely spurred things along.

Asked why this decision was made now, a Tyson spokesman said ”We’re doing this now because it’s the most responsible approach to balance a global health concern and animal well-being.”

He added that the company stopped using antibiotics in its 35 hatcheries last year, has substantially reduced the medicines’ use over the past several years (by 80%), and is continually testing alternatives to antibiotics.

Another fast food chain, Chipotle, is taking a more aggressive approach in eliminating genetically modified and artificial foods, and in that sense could help change the way that food is produced in the country.

But the McDonald’s stance—and Tyson’s move following it—is going to change the chicken that millions and millions of Americans eat every day.