When it comes to safeguarding the healing and lifesaving powers of important medicines, fast-food giant McDonald's is showing up the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The commitment by McDonald's, announced in early March, to buy only chicken that's free of medically important antibiotics, has spurred the nation's largest poultry producer, Tyson Foods, to make a similar commitment.
Tyson announced Monday that by September 2017 it no longer would feed its chickens human antibiotics. Two other major poultry producers, Purdue and Pilgrim's, previously moved to eliminate human antibiotics from their birds.
"Tyson's pledge means that more than one-third of the entire U.S. chicken industry has now eliminated or pledged to eliminate routine use of medically-important antibiotics," says Sasha Stashwich of the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.
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It has sued the FDA to try to spur the agency's plodding campaign against the overuse of antibiotics in food production and the resulting spread of bacteria that are resistant to treatment.
Drug-resistant superbug infections sicken at least 2 million and kill 23,000 Americans each year.
The FDA in late 2013 announced a voluntary plan to phase out the addition of antibiotics to livestock feed for the purpose of speeding weight gain in animals. But the FDA plan would allow the routine feeding of antibiotics to continue as long as the stated purpose was disease prevention rather than growth promotion, a distinction not honored by mutating bacteria.
Consumer protection groups should be vigilant about similar loopholes in the poultry industry's pledges. The industry's definition of "human antibiotics" is critical, says the NRDC, and should include all medicines in a class of drugs used in humans.
Also, the industry should employ third-party verifiers to ensure that consumers are really getting the antibiotic-free chicken they're being promised.
The industry and FDA have dragged their feet far too long. Evidence of the link between antibiotics in animal feed and drug resistance in humans has been amassing for 40 years.
Consumer power and market forces are doing what the government would not by compelling poultry producers to really change. The beef and pork industries should pay attention and follow suit.