McDonald’s has been earning a lot of headlines lately, mostly around how the company can turn itself around and reverse their tumbling sales and drop in market share.

Recently, McDonald’s took a giant step in right direction by committing to only purchasing chicken raised without the use of medically important antibiotics within two years. 

Other restaurants have done this with great success. Several restaurants, including Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Chick-fil-A, already sell meat raised without antibiotics or have committed to do so. Shake Shack, which uses meat with “no antibiotics ever,” went public late January and their stock value doubled in the first day. And Carl’s Jr. launched a burger three months ago that uses meat raised without antibiotics; according to the company, the burger has sold better than projected following its recent introduction to the menu.

It seems clear: Consumers are eager for meat raised without unnecessary antibiotics. McDonald’s has heard and seen this and their new action will apply to all the chicken sold at their roughly 14,000 stores across the United States.

Recent action from restaurants to provide antibiotic-free options also comes amidst a growing concern from medical experts about the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections.

Whether it’s to treat a common ear infection, a more life-threatening illness like pneumonia, or to stave off post-op infections after surgery, antibiotics are a critical part of modern medicine. Unfortunately, many antibiotics are losing their effectiveness as bacteria develop resistance to the medication.  Already 2 million American get sick from antibiotic-resistant superbugs each year – and 23,000 die.

According to the World Health Organization, if we don’t take urgent action to protect our antibiotics, we could lose them altogether and enter a “post-antibiotic era” where illnesses that we could once treat readily can once again kill.

Agriculture has a big stake in this issue. Currently, up to 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the U.S. are sold for use on animals, many of which are given routinely to animals that aren’t sick. This is done to promote growth and prevent disease caused by common agricultural practices.

The practice of giving healthy animals low doses of antibiotics helps bacteria develop resistance to the drugs. But these superbugs aren’t just confined to farms; they can move off the farm and into humans through our food, air, water, soil and direct human contact. Which brings us back to McDonald’s. With their new commitment, the chain joins a growing number of restaurants that are helping to protect antibiotics for generations to come. At the same time, the change sends a strong signal to the marketplace that the demand for chicken raised without the routine use of antibiotics is enormous and growing.

Across Connecticut, hundreds of college students have already called on McDonald’s to use meat raised without antibiotics. The Southern Connecticut State University College Democrats, the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, and Yale Food Action are among a growing number of student groups also calling for action from the fast food giant. It appears that McDonald’s is beginning to listen.

The business benefits of listening to this millennial demand are as clear as its health benefits. Since 2011, the number of 19- to 21-year-olds who visit McDonald’s monthly as slipped almost 13 percent. Instead, millennials are a significant factor in the growth of McDonald’s competitors like Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Shake Shack. 

The antibiotics policy came during the first week of McDonald’s new CEO, Steve Easterbrook’s tenure.  And if this in any indication of how things will be run going forward, then there is reason for more hope. That’s because even though this is a step in the right direction, the policy announced two weeks ago only applies to chicken, and McDonald’s serves a lot of other meats.  Every year, for example, McDonald’s serves a billion pounds of beef in the U.S. That’s a lot of Big Macs and quarter pounders, and a lot of opportunities for more meals raised without the routine use of antibiotics.

By listening to their consumers and committing to chicken raised without medically important antibiotics, McDonald’s has taken a lead in protecting these critical drugs. Moving forward, the restaurant should expand this policy; in the raising of beef and pork, McDonald’s shouldn’t chicken out.

Sean Doyle is a campaign organizer for ConnPIRG, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that advocates for the public interest.

Minerva Ringland is a junior biology major at Yale, and co-president of the student group Yale Food Action.

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