Why I remain skeptical about McDonald's food changes

McDonald's sign
CC BY 2.0 Mike Mozart

Everyone is jumping up and down for joy at the fact that McDonald's is now serving antibiotic-free chicken. Please, let's not ignore everything else that's so wrong with the company.

McDonald’s has followed through with a promise to eliminate all antibiotics from chicken served in its restaurants. This action is in response to growing pressure from environmental organizations, animal welfare groups, and others concerned about the long-term effects of using antibiotics important for human medicine in such large quantities.

The more antibiotics are used, the more germs evolve to resist them. According to the Pew Health Initiative, in 2013 there were 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics sold to farmers for use in livestock, nearly four times the amount sold for human use. At the same time, an estimated 2 million people get sick and 23,000 die each year in the United States from antibiotic-resistant infections. By moving away from antibiotics in meat production, McDonald’s hopes to lessen the environmental burden and increase the efficacy of antibiotics when they’re truly needed.

Because of this action, McDonald’s is being praised by groups such as Grist and Friends of the Environment (FOE) for its progress:

“We applaud McDonald's for moving forward so quickly to implement its commitment to eliminate antibiotics in human medicine from its chicken supply. As the nation’s largest restaurant chain, McDonald’s will send an important signal to the entire poultry industry -- as well as to its top competitors -- that offering chicken raised without antibiotics is both good for business and achievable in short order.”

McDonald’s appears to be on a roll to please the masses. In addition to its antibiotic pledge, it has also promised to swap out high-fructose corn syrup for sugar in its buns (a questionable improvement), to eliminate artificial preservatives from McNuggets and breakfast items, to free egg-layers from their cages. It has promised to use “100% pure beef” and “fresh-cracked eggs” and chicken made with “simple pantry ingredients.” The company’s quest, in the words of McDonald’s spokeswoman Becca Hary, is to use ingredients that "sound more familiar to people.”

These are changes in the right direction, but still they don’t sit well with me. I view them as superficial – a form of greenwashing that makes the company look good in the eyes of customers who want to feel less guilty about eating their McNuggets. McDonald’s is throwing a bone, so to speak, to the environmental and animal rights people, hoping it will distract from the countless other problems that plague the entire fast food industry and that McDonald’s really doesn’t want to change.

Take, for example, the fact that calories are still as high as ever, the food remains grossly unhealthy and meat-centric (a huge environmental issue), and the dependence on oily, sugary fast food meals is linked to America’s tremendous overweight and obesity problem.

Tom Philpott reports for Mother Jones:

“The World Health Organization recommends limiting added sugar intake to about 25 grams per day, meaning that a Quarter Pounder delivers about 40 percent of the maximum sugar you should be taking in. Combine it with other common McDonald's items – a small Coke (47 grams) or a small vanilla shake (61 grams) – and you've just swallowed quite a sugar bomb.”

There’s the issue of single-use packaging and the vast quantity of waste that is generated by meals eaten on the go. In Britain, a survey found that waste from McDonald’s makes up the largest proportion of fast food litter on the streets (29 percent compared to Subway’s 5 percent and KFC’s 8 percent).

The mere existence of McDonald’s – antibiotic-free chicken or not – supports the notion that meals are meant to be treated as an afterthought. The restaurant chain epitomizes so much of what’s wrong with the food scene in America today – eating in a rush, alone in one’s car, on a regular basis. Over the long term, this is detrimental to family wellbeing, to waistlines, even to finances. It’s a system that’s deeply flawed and nothing that McDonald’s does to look greener will change that.

So, no, I’m not overly impressed by antibiotic-free chicken. It’s not good enough. I still have no interest in buying food from my local McDonald’s – never have and probably never will.

Why I remain skeptical about McDonald's food changes
Everyone is jumping up and down for joy at the fact that McDonald's is now serving antibiotic-free chicken. Please, let's not ignore everything else that's so wrong with the company.

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