McDonald's announced Monday that it has stopped serving chicken raised with antibiotics important to human health, a change made months ahead of schedule.
The fast food giant initially expected the transition to be complete by March 2017.
Also on Monday, McDonald's officials said the company is eliminating high-fructose corn syrup from its sandwich buns and has removed artificial preservatives from its Chicken McNuggets, pork sausage patties, omelet-style eggs and scrambled eggs.
Public interest and environmental groups that are campaigning to curb antibiotic overuse in food animals applauded McDonald's for its action on antibiotics in chicken.
"This expedited time frame and transparency is wonderful news for anyone who cares about public health," Lena Brook, food policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) food and agriculture program, wrote in a blog post.
Ethan Jacquart with Illinois PIRG added in a statement: "When antibiotics don't work, that can be a life and death situation. By hitting their commitment to serve chicken raised without the misuse of antibiotics, McDonald's is recognizing that they understand the seriousness of the situation and the importance of taking action. Hats off to them. We're hopeful that McDonald's will make similar commitments for beef and pork soon."
Nationwide, growing attention is being paid to the fairly common practice of using non-therapeutic antibiotics in the conventional livestock industry to promote animal growth and prevent disease.
Advocates for restricting the use of antibiotics in food animals say the issue is an urgent public health problem. They say the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is making antibiotics used in medicine less effective and promoting the development of more resistant bacteria strains.
Seventy percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are reportedly used on livestock.
Numerous U.S. food chains have moved toward the use of antibiotic-free meat as consumer demand grows for the product.
With more restaurants offering antibiotic-free meat, Kentucky Fried Chicken is under extra scrutiny from public interest groups for lagging behind other large food chains.
"McDonald's is part of a leading group of major companies who are committed to sourcing chicken produced without routine antibiotics, most notably Chipotle, Panera, Chick-fil-A, Subway, and recently, Taco Bell," Brook explained. "By contrast, KFC stands out as the signature chicken purveyor that is far behind. NRDC and our allies have been calling on the largest chicken restaurant chain in the United States to set a similar antibiotics policy for its chicken suppliers since January but have yet to see any meaningful movement from this iconic fried chicken chain.
Back in May, the NRDC launched a national campaign calling on KFC to commit to phasing out chicken raised with the routine use of antibiotics. The campaign came after NRDC and over 80 other groups, including Illinois PIRG, sent a letter in January to the chairman of Yum! Brand restaurants, which include KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, asking that the company implement better antibiotics policies.
Illinois PIRG and other state PIRGs have thus far collected over 87,000 petition signatures urging KFC to act on antibiotics.
"Illinois PIRG staff have knocked on thousands of doors across the state in recent months mobilizing consumers to call on KFC to help save antibiotics," Jacquart said. "We hope KFC will join other restaurant chains and commit to stop selling meat raised on routine antibiotics to ensure the effectiveness of antibiotics in the future."
KFC's current position on antibiotics is posted on its website: "KFC U.S. works closely with suppliers to minimize the use of antibiotics important in human medicine at the farms that supply our restaurants. By 2017, antibiotics important in human medicine will only be used to maintain chicken health, and only under the supervision and prescription of a licensed veterinarian. The use of these antibiotics for growth promotion is not allowed."
In an email, a KFC spokeswoman said the restaurant chain's antibiotics position "is currently being reviewed to determine the viability for our suppliers to go beyond the FDA guidelines for antibiotics usage."