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McDonald's will phase out chicken treated with human antibiotics in the US

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But antibiotics that are solely used on animals are still fair game

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McDonald's US locations will stop buying chicken raised using human antibiotics within the next two years, Reuters reports. The unprecedented move is meant to help the restaurant win back customers who want to eat more "natural" meat. But that doesn't mean that the chain's chicken will be antibiotic-free by 2017. Instead, the company will buy chicken from farmers who use ionophores — antibiotics that aren't used on humans.

"We're listening to our customers," senior vice president of McDonald's North American supply chain, Marion Gross, told Reuters.

animals are the biggest consumers of antibiotics in the country

About 23,000 people die each year in the US because of antibiotic-resistant infections — infections that cost the American health care system over $21 billion each year. A significant decline in antibiotic effectiveness would be disastrous; the Infectious Diseases Society of America has called antibiotic resistance one of the greatest threats to humans worldwide. Unfortunately, one of the major drivers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is the use of antibiotics in factory farms; animals are the biggest consumers of antibiotics in the country. They are given to animals on a regular basis to prevent infections, and sometimes to promote growth. But the presence of antibiotics in food production, antibiotics to which bacteria can adapt, is a huge problem for human health. Because when people eat meat raised on antibiotics, they also ingest bacteria that have stopped responding to these drugs.

To address this issue — and the company's sagging sales — McDonald's will work with chicken suppliers like Tyson Foods Inc. to transition out of selling chicken raised using human antibiotics. The phase-out will be US-specific; about 14,000 US restaurants will be affected. The company's 22,000 international restaurants will keep serving chicken raised with human antibiotics, at least for a while.

23,000 people die each year in the US because of resistant infections

The move may help McDonald's win back customers; consumers in the US are increasingly interested in "natural," antibiotic-free meat. But the policy won't match up with that of chains like Panera Bread Co. and Chipotle Mexican Grill. These chains have also banned the use of antibiotics that are solely used on animals — drugs that McDonald's suppliers will keep using.