McDonald’s USA makes a splash by announcing tough new standards on the use of antibiotics and rbST — only it’s the chain’s suppliers, not the company that will be jumping through hoops.

Big news from McDonald’s USA: The global fast-food chain announced new “menu sourcing initiatives” (don’t you love PR-ese?) that will require the sourcing of chicken raised without antibiotics used in human medicine.

And that’s not all. McDonald’s U.S. stores will now offer low-fat white milk and fat-free chocolate milk from dairies where cows are rbST-free.

Are these customer-driven initiatives? Doubtful.

If you stood at a McDonald’s drive-thru line for a couple hours some busy weekday morning and asked people which antibiotics we’re talking about when the phrase “used in human medicine” is referenced, maybe one in ten might come up with, “Uh, penicillin?”

But the other nine would be adamant about what they do know: Antibiotics are bad!

Except when you or a family member gets an infection. In that case, you’re anxiously waiting in line, not at McDonalds’ but at your local pharmacy’s drive-thru to pick up a prescription for the medicine you need.

As for rbST, McDonald’s could give away a free Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Crispy (antibiotic-free) Chicken to every customer who could actually define “rbST,” and let’s just say that none of their franchisees would risk going broke.

But McDonald’s corporate was quick to spin the new standards as super-consumer-friendly.

McDonald’s President Mike Andres issued a statement noting that, “Our customers want food that they feel great about eating — all the way from the farm to the restaurant.”

(Which presumes that the majority of the fast-food-eating public understands there’s an actual “farm” involved in food production).

The company’s news release went on to state that, “McDonald’s has been working closely with farmers for years to reduce the use of antibiotics in its poultry supply. This policy supports the company’s new Global Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Food Animals introduced this week, which . . . includes supplier guidance on the thoughtful use of antibiotics in all food animals.”

Scrutinizing the policy

Actually, McDonald’s vision on antibiotics, as outlined in its Global Stewardship program, is tough to criticize. Here are the company’s policy points:

  • Antimicrobials that are “critically important” to human medicine by WHO definition, and not approved for veterinary use, are prohibited in food animals.
  • Antimicrobials approved for use in human and veterinary medicine can only be used in conjunction with a veterinary-developed animal health care program.
  • [Producers] will utilize practices that reduce, and where possible eliminate, the need for antimicrobial therapies and adopt existing best practices and/or new practices [to] reduce antimicrobial use.
  • Medically important antimicrobials are prohibited for growth promotion in food animals.

It’s only that last bullet point that could conceivably cause a responsible grower or producer to encounter problems. Obviously, producers shouldn’t be administering antibiotics unapproved for veterinary use, whether or not a vet signed off on the protocol. It’s practically boilerplate these days for companies to require their suppliers to adopt “best practices” to assure product safety and quality.

And the idea that sick animals should receive antibiotic treatment — just like people — is simply common sense.

So it’s really the growth-promotion piece that’s at issue here, and whether that’s good, bad or otherwise is a topic for another column.

But let’s be honest about why McDonald’s management (or that of any other foodservice or retail operator) is making these moves: Because they can.

There’s no downside to an organization with the purchasing clout of Ronald McDonald making demands on its suppliers. Who’s going to object? If a supplier were to dig in its heels, the brass in Oakbrook would be happy to show them where the Exit sign is located.

It’s other companies that have to make the necessary changes, not McDonald’s. The cost of compliance on their end is minimal. It’s all investment upside, positive press and feel-good PR.

By the way, in case you weren’t willing to scroll to the end of the company’s news release, there was a telling statement by one of its senior executives.

Marion Gross, Senior Vice President of Supply Chain Management, acknowledged that “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows.” Nevertheless, she added, “We understand this is something that is important to our customers.”

And even easier to implement than ordering the Double Quarter Pounder Extra Value Meal to go.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.