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Editorial: Safer McNuggets are step toward better public health

The discovery of penicillin this isn’t. Even so, McDonald’s announcement Wednesday that it would curtail the use of antibiotics in chickens is a significant gain in the battle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.


Farmers long have known that feeding antibiotics to healthy poultry and other animals makes them grow more quickly. That makes food cheaper, which is a good thing. But the more antibiotics are used, the more quickly bacteria grow resistant to them. For example, many bacteria now quietly chuckle at penicillin, which was widely overprescribed in the last century.

Although new antibiotics have been developed, bacteria have evolved that are resistant to most or all of them. Some 2 million Americans a year are infected by such “superbugs” each year, and at least 23,000 die. ;In fact, two Los Angeles hospitals have reported superbug outbreaks in the past two weeks. Health authorities are warning of a future in which small cuts again could be fatal and common surgeries become too dangerous to risk.

The new McDonald’s policy, which will be phased in over two years at the chain’s more than 14,000 U.S. restaurants, is just a start. It leaves open a loophole for continued use of antibiotics that are not used to treat people, and it doesn’t cover beef and pork or restaurants outside the United States.

But while other chains already have moved to antibiotic-free meat, McDonald’s is the biggest to make such a commitment, and its new policy may force other companies to follow.

Of course, farms aren’t the only source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Health experts also blame doctors, who write more 11.4 million unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions a year to placate demanding patients. It’s also suspected that bacteria frequently exposed to antibiotics not intended for humans can develop resistance to the human variety as well.

Whatever the source, superbugs are a global threat. And just as the need for new additional antibiotics is growing, some big drug companies have stopped developing new ones because it’s harder to earn back research costs for drugs that will lose their effectiveness.

It’s not easy for a company as big as McDonald’s to make this kind of change. According to the New York Times, it took two years to find enough suppliers just to add cucumbers to the McDonald’s menu.

But farmers, food companies and health authorities nevertheless need to keep pushing hard to reduce the overuse of antibiotics. Our health – and our lives – depend on it.