The battle by McDonald’s to bring customers back into its stores has been long and fraught. Don Thompson, the company’s former CEO as of March 1, couldn’t turn the chain around after more than two years at the helm. Nor could Ronald McDonald’s makeover or a transparency campaign featuring TV star Grant Imahara. Chances are the “Pay With Lovin’ ” campaign didn’t do it, either. But the latest attempt from McDonald’s to woo consumers isn’t a cheap publicity stunt, or a terrifying mascot rebranding, or even a limited-time offer of the McRib. Instead, it’s something an overwhelming number of consumers desire and seek out—and you should thank Chipotle for that.
McDonald’s said Wednesday that over the next two years it plans to phase out all “antibiotics that are important to human medicine” in the chicken it serves. Already, the move is being praised by advocates of sustainable and responsibly produced meat. McDonald’s is one of the biggest purchasers of chicken in the United States and bought up an estimated 3 to 4 percent of the nation’s 39 billion pounds last year. If the company decides it’s done with certain antibiotics, you can bet that the agriculture industry is going to listen.
The funny thing is that McDonald’s decision really didn’t start with McDonald’s—it began with fast-casual chains like Chipotle. The Mexican grill chain that won the hearts and stomachs of America has gone to great lengths to distance itself from the traditional fast-food sector. And it’s accomplished that largely by emphasizing its sustainability and leading the charge into antibiotic-free meat. In May 2012, NPR reported that the still-tiny antibiotic-free meat industry was receiving a sudden burst of attention because of Chipotle. Since then, consumer spending on chicken raised without antibiotics has surpassed $1 billion and retailers as mainstream as Walmart and BJ’s have begun stocking it.
Of course, Chipotle can’t claim all the credit. Lots of other restaurant chains—smaller than McDonald’s but still significant—have hopped on the antibiotic-free train, including Panera and Chick-Fil-A. At the same time, Chipotle has probably been the most instrumental in raising consumer awareness of antibiotics in meat. “I don't think that Chipotle has directly put pressure on McDonald's,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of restaurant industry research firm Technomic. “I think that Chipotle’s use of proteins that don't have antibiotics has educated consumers and raised consumers’ expectations about what kind of food they find healthy.”