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Taking a cue from rival Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s announced Wednesday morning that it intends to stop buying chickens that have been treated with antibiotics that are also taken by humans, seeking to address consumers’ concerns about resistant “super-bugs” resulting from overuse of the drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year super-bugs cause some 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the U.S., resulting in an estimated $20 billion in direct health care costs. McDonald’s also announced that its U.S. locations would sell milk products only from cows that are free of artificial growth hormones (specifically rbST), but added that it would continue to allow suppliers to “responsibly use” certain antibiotics (called ionophores) which are not used in humans.
The world’s largest fast food chain will spend the next two years working to phase in its news standards with its suppliers, including Tyson Foods which, according to reports, said it would comply with the company’s requests, adding that its chicken production had reduced it use of antibiotics by 84% since 2011. A company spokesperson also commented that it would phase out using antibiotics as early as in the hatchery phase of production (when chicks are injected while still in their shells).
While he may only (officially) be four days into his new role, CEO Steve Easterbrook (who recently said he viewed himself as the company’s “internal activist,” perhaps hoping to ward off the latest wave of activist investors targeting companies that haven’t performed as well as expected) gets to mark this antibiotic-free move under his watch.
But is this really a signal that it won’t be business as usual for the beleaguered fast food giant or is it too little too late?
“I don’t think it is. It’s what needs to happen to McDonald’s right now,” says Darren Tristano, a restaurant industry analyst at Technomic. “In our industry you can catch up very quickly, but if you don’t, doing nothing isn’t an answer or a solution. This clearly is a sign that McDonald’s is willing to improve.”
While the antibiotic ban is making big news here, McDonald’s is already sourcing drug-free chicken overseas. “There are a number of countries where it doesn’t have antibiotics or hormones in its chicken,” says Tristano, including the U.K., where Easterbrook comes from. “But this is a step for them to come back to the leadership position they used to have in this industry.”
While this most likely is the first of many steps by McDonald’s to reverse its recent slide (in interviews, Easterbrook has said it needs to become nimble to accommodate market needs), a comeback will take time. Says Tristano:
First, you have to qualify coming back. I think for McDonald’s that’s getting back to a level of growth that’s nominally keeping up with inflation. I’d expect to see it back to 2.5% to 3%, which puts it into a position where it isn’t losing share, and anything above that would put it in a position where it’s taking share. Look, it was the leader during the recession, driving a lot of the industry growth. While I wouldn’t expect that to reoccur, I think getting back to zero and building, and no longer losing share is important, and we may be looking at 2016 for that to happen. But if it can get back to even, that certainly helps the company grow again.