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McDonald’s McNugget will soon be antibiotic-free

The McNugget is going antibiotic-free.

McDonald’s announced Wednesday that it will only buy chickens raised without antibiotics that fight human infections. The plan will be phased in over the next two years.

The decision reflects concern about increasingly resistant bacteria.

Antibiotics have been used since the 20th century for both treating and preventing illnesses. Wherever they’re used, the bacteria they fight can become resistant, so the antibiotics meant to cure the infection are less effective. And when people get infected with the resistant bacteria, they have longer, more severe illnesses.

Eventually, these stronger bacteria create antibiotic-resistant strains.

Livestock animals are commonly fed antibiotics as a preventative measure. In the Food and Drug Administration’s annual report released in September last year, the agency cited a 16 percent increase in medically important antibiotics sold to farmers for livestock animals from 2009 to 2012 alone.

Some chickens are given their first dose of antibiotics while they’re still in the shell and many will continue consuming them, whether they are sick or not, over their brief, 80 to 100-day lifespan from hatchery to down the hatch.

In foodborne bacterial infections, resistance has increased over the last decade or so, said Barbara Mahon, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control.

“Antibiotic resistance has increased quite a lot over the last number of years,” Mahon said. “It’s really becoming a significant threat to public health.”

Superbugs, as they are often called, lead to around 2 million drug resistant infections and 23,000 deaths in the United States each year, according to the CDC.

Beyond eliminating routine, preventative treatment, McDonald’s acknowledged that some suppliers will continue to treat their chickens with antibiotics when they become sick. The fast food chain will not buy those birds, Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald’s North American supply chain, told Reuters.

However, antibiotic resistance is admittedly not a straightforward process. The genes for resistance are sometimes connected, meaning it’s possible for one antibiotic to create resistance to others as well.

For example, you could eat a piece of meat that has bacteria on it that won’t make you sick, but has the genes for resistance. Those genes can incorporate into other bacteria, making them resistant. If you get sick from one of the second-generation resistant bacteria, you could end up with a resistant infection.

“It can be complicated and it can be unpredictable,” Mahon said.

Although McDonald’s will phase out the use of human-related antibiotics, they will continue to use poultry fed ionophores, an antibiotic not used for humans.

McDonald’s announcement proves that for poultry growers to have a sustainable business, they’ll need to stop using antibiotics, said Center for Science in the Public Interest Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal.

“McDonald’s is a big buyer,” she said. “Other companies may have beat them to the punch in taking this step, but the fact that McDonald’s is now following suit is very important to consumers.”

Other chain restaurants like Chipotle made the shift to antibiotic-free meat over a decade ago.