We’re with the nuns on this one.

A group of nuns in Texas is pushing McDonald’s to create a comprehensive plan and a timetable to use only antibiotic-free pork and beef. The nuns, who own stock in the company, plan to bring their campaign to McDonald’s annual corporate meeting in Oak Brook in May.

Here’s hoping McDonald’s takes heed. Our nation’s health depends on it.

Farmers commonly feed antibiotics to pigs and cows to make them grow faster. Industrial-scale operations also use antibiotics to keep animals healthy in crowded, unsanitary environments. But the more we use antibiotics in farm animals, the more quickly bacteria grow resistant to the drugs we need to cure human diseases. Scientists worry about the day when their medicine chest is empty and such illnesses as pneumonia become untreatable. Fatal childhood diseases again would be rampant, as they were a century ago. Ordinary cuts and scrapes, when infected, again would kill. Common surgeries such as joint replacements and organ transplants, where there is a high risk of infection, would become too risky to attempt.


“Superbugs” — bacteria resident to a variety of drugs — already are here. Last year, a Nevada woman died from a close relative of e-coli that was resistant to 26 different antibiotics. Each year, 23,000 Americans died from bacterial infections resistant to more than one drug. A British study predicted superbugs will kill 10 million people a year by 2050.

The hamburgers and sausages at McDonald’s represent a fraction of the market for antibiotic-laden meat. But the hamburger chain is an industry leader. It paves the way. When McDonald’s announced in 2015 it would follow some smaller chains by insisting on substantially antibiotic-free chicken from its suppliers, its big competitors followed suit. KFC, the last major holdout, enlisted in the effort on April 7. When McDonald’s decided its eggs would be laid by cage-free chickens within 10 years, more than 100 other companies decided they would do that as well.

A decision by McDonald’s — the world’s largest hamburger chain — to get antibiotics out of beef and pork almost certainly would force a similar chain reaction.

It’s not a change that can happen overnight. McDonald’s points out that the pork and beef markets are different than that of chicken. Any restaurant chain, even one as big as McDonald’s, has less control over how a cow or hog is raised because it doesn’t purchase the entire animal, as it does with chicken. Animals can be sold from one farm to another, and it takes much longer for a cow or pig to grow than for a chicken, making it harder to track what was in the animal’s feed.

Presumably, farmers would continue to use antibiotics to treat sick animals, as the nuns, the Congregation of Benedictine Sisters of Boene, Texas, understand and accept. But the Food and Drug Administration says more than 70 percent of the type of antibiotics used to treat humans in the United States are sold for use in livestock. That creates a breeding ground for bacteria to develop resistance to important drugs.

Bacterial resistance has been on the rise for years, but scientists have been able to blunt its effects by developing new types of antibiotics after old ones lose their effectiveness. Yet, while bacteria are losing some battles, they are winning the war. The rate at which new antibiotics are discovered has been declining for 40 years, and scientists have found no new class of effective antibiotics for 20 years. Even if they do find a new one, the current overuse of antibiotics eventually will overcome it, as well.

Moreover, funding for research against disease is on the chopping block in President Donald Trump’s Washington. Trump’s budget blueprint would slash $6 billion from the National Institutes of Health, nearly a fifth of the agency’s funding. Not only does the NIH do its own biomedical research, but it also funds research at the nation’s universities. Scientists are seeking new sources of antibiotics in such places as the marine environment — and even in the blood of Komodo dragons — but without funding, preliminary discoveries won’t lead to new cures.

We don’t doubt McDonald’s understands the importance of this issue. It was among only nine fast-food chains given a passing grade last year by the Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups for trying to reduce the use of antibiotics in food. And McDonald’s is pushing hard to improve its image among increasingly health-conscious consumers.

But nothing gets results faster than unrelenting pressure for change. Using antibiotics to produce growth in livestock has been banned in Scandinavian countries since 2006.

The Benedictine Sisters of Boerne get it. There is a moral imperative, quite suitable for a religious order to champion, to pushing for an end to the dangerous non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock.

In the coming years, countless lives would be saved.

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