Advocacy group calls on McDonald's to remove antibiotics from beef, pork

(Reuters) - A consumer and public health group is pressing McDonald’s Corp to set a timeline for phasing out the routine use of medically important antibiotics in the beef and pork it serves, amid warnings that the practice fuels dangerous drug-resistant superbug infections in people.

A McDonald's Corp restaurant is seen in Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The petition drive by U.S. PIRG Education Fund is the latest in a broad campaign from the World Health Organization (WHO), investors, advocacy groups, and even nuns, to pressure farmers to curb or eliminate the use of those life-saving drugs on food animals.

In the United States, an estimated 70 percent of antibiotics that are important to fighting human infections and ensuring the safety of invasive procedures such as surgeries are sold for use on farms.

Scientists warn that the use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent illness in healthy farms animals contributes to the rise of dangerous antibiotic-resistant superbug infections, which kill at least 23,000 Americans each year and pose a significant threat to global health.

As the world’s biggest hamburger chain and a significant buyer of pork for its bacon and McRib sandwiches, McDonald’s has an outsize influence on farm practices.

“The Big Mac can make a big dent in stopping the misuse of antibiotics in our food system,” said Matthew Wellington, antibiotics program director for U.S. PIRG.

McDonald’s in 2016 was the first major fast-food chain to shift its U.S. chicken supply to birds raised without medically important antibiotics, its effort spurred most of its rivals and major chicken suppliers to follow.

McDonald’s in August said would begin curbing the use of high-value human antibiotics in its global chicken supply in 2018 and begin working on antibiotic plans for other meats, dairy cows and laying hens.

The company was not immediately available after normal business hours for comment.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently said sales and distribution of medically important antibiotics for food production fell 14 percent from 2015 to 2016, the first decline in year-to-year sales since the agency began collecting the data in 2009.

FDA said chicken accounted for 6 percent of medically important antibiotic sales, while swine and cattle came in at 37 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker