This week McDonald's announced it will move to reduce or eliminate the non-medically necessary antibiotics in its meat supply chain by 85%. It’s the latest in a long string of announcements from restaurants and food suppliers who are making moves toward using fewer antibiotics in livestock farming.
The reason is simple. Overuse of antibiotics in animals — and in humans for that matter — causes bacteria to evolve and adapt to resist the threat. This leads to the proliferation of disease-causing bacteria that are resistant to current treatment.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls antibiotic resistance "one of the biggest public health challenges of our time." The use of antibiotics as growth promoters in livestock goes back to the 1950s, and it’s only in recent years the public is becoming aware of the consequences. The CDC says in 2013 at least 23,000 Americans died from antibiotic-resistant infections.
In light all this, how does the food system reverse course? When faced with an issue of public concern such as antibiotics, procurement professionals are tasked with meeting these demands.
And while moves like the one McDonald’s made this week may seem like an edict thrown at the procurement staff within the massive company, I would argue it’s more a boon than a burden.
The McDonald’s announcement has a very loose timeline. In fact, the company says that it won’t even commit to a target for antibiotic-reduction benchmarks until 2020, but this doesn't make the decision less impactful — in fact quite the opposite.
These kind of announcements aren't merely corporate social responsibility lip service or marketing for the benefit of consumers. They send a strong message to suppliers that there is a customer for meat raised without medically unnecessary antibiotics — a big BIG customer. And they use the strong incentive of public accountability to show potential suppliers who may be looking at changing their practices that McDonald’s will be there to buy once they do, and others will likely follow.
Sustainable procurement often gets wrapped up in a logic circle. Food companies feel they can’t afford sustainable alternatives, and so sustainable suppliers can’t reach the scale that would make their goods more affordable for those same suppliers. What helps to break that cycle is announcements like McDonald's.
McDonald’s recognizes this power. In its release it said: "As one of the world’s largest restaurant companies, McDonald’s has the opportunity to use our scale to tackle some of the most complicated challenges facing people, animals and our planet - and help drive industry-wide progress."
We can argue all day about whether McDonald’s is late to this party, but as the largest purchaser of beef in the world, the party can’t start in earnest without them.