I'm not going to tell you that a McDonald's hamburger is a healthy food choice. That's not my place.

But McDonald's made an announcement this week that could truly change the ultimate health effects of eating fast food burgers -- and perhaps in an even more important way than you might be thinking of.

The issue isn't just frozen beef or fresh, or how big a serving of french fries should be (all things that have seen a lot of attention in the fast food-o-sphere in the past year or so).

Instead, it's about antibiotics: specifically the degree to which the suppliers who provide the meat that fast food restaurants use are able to include antibiotics in their beef. Here's the new development.

Mainly, so we won't die

By 2020, McDonald's says, it hopes to curb the use of antibiotics in beef in its 10 biggest markets. We're talking about countries here, so the U.S., along with Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Ireland, Poland, U.K., Canada, and Brazil.

All together, that's 85 percent of McDonald's global supply chain.

The company says it hopes that if it forces suppliers to stop using antibiotics in beef that competitors will have no choice but to follow suit. (The headline on its press release: Using Our Scale for Good: McDonald's New Antibiotic Policy for Beef.)

Why care? Because the World Health Organization identifies human resistance to antibiotics -- on the rise because they're used in so much food production, and we're thus exposed to trace amounts when we eat -- as one of the most pressing health problems on the planet.

Develop resistance, and antibiotics don't work as well -- leaving us prone to a wide range of infections and conditions, some of them fatal.

First chicken, now beef

So, a company the size of McDonald's can have a significant impact on world health if it makes a change like this, and ultimately pressures suppliers to change their ways. And leading like that can also create an important marketing benefit for the company, literally changing the way people think about the brand.

"McDonald's iconic position and the fact that they're the largest single global purchaser of beef make it hugely important," David  Wallinga, a senior health adviser for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, told Reuters.

Reuters also reports that McDonald's previously had a big effect on the use of antibiotics with poultry producers, by similarly refusing to work with chicken suppliers who use antibiotics.

Beef has always been a harder challenge apparently, simply because cattle live longer than chicken, and thus have a much longer time frame in which they can get sick -- and because of a lack of other treatments.

Changing perceptions

The cattle industry isn't necessarily thrilled with this announcement as a result.

"We will need those medically important antibiotics in meat production for a long, long time," Bob Smith, a cattle veterinarian in Oklahoma, told Reuters. "We want to use those wisely."

But it seems that won't be an option. If McDonald's sticks to its principle, and if ranchers and beef producers want to sell to McDonald's or other large customers, they'll have to change their ways.

And that could change a lot of other things about the fast food industry in general -- to say nothing of what you think of a hamburger.

Published on: Dec 13, 2018
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