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Fast Food Companies Make Progress in Addressing Antibiotic Resistance Crisis

By: Cameron Harsh, Senior Manager for Organic and Animal Policy

September 20, 2016
Center for Food Safety

Five Key Findings on Where the Industry Stands Today

Today, groups including Center for Food Safety released Chain Reaction II, the 2nd annual report ranking the top 25 U.S. restaurant chains on their antibiotics policies. Antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis, driven largely by overuse and misuse of antibiotics. In fact, the United Nations will meet tomorrow to discuss the issue and commit to specific actions. But political conversations too often focus on identifying ways to reduce overuse of antibiotics in human healthcare settings. There is significantly less willingness to tackle overuse of the drugs in animals raised for food, despite the fact that roughly 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are marketed to animals. That is why activists and consumers have rallied together to engage the restaurant industry and encourage companies to reduce the use of antibiotics in their supply chains.

Companies are responding. Since last year, Subway, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Papa John’s have all announced some commitment to address routine use of antibiotics. A few have even begun putting their new policies into action. McDonald’s announced plans in 2015 to eliminate routine use of medically-important antibiotics in their chicken. This year the company converted 100% of their chicken supply to comply with their new policy. All in all, nine companies received passing grades this year, compared to four in last year’s report. That still leaves 16 companies that have taken no public action to date to address antibiotics use by their meat and poultry suppliers. Clearly, there is much work to be done to continue moving the industry and eliminating the routine use of antibiotics in food animals.

Sign our petition telling the 16 “F” companies to adopt strong polices that prohibit the regular use of antibiotics in their meat and poultry.

But the scores are only part of the story, and there are a number of big-picture messages to take away from the report and where the industry stands today:

1.       Company engagement more than doubled

Sixteen companies responded to the survey this year, more than doubling last year’s response rate. Looking at it another way, more companies participated in this project than opted out. This is a fantastic trend. Consumers are demanding change, and the industry is paying attention. The Chain Reaction II scorecard is not only a tool to help consumers choose where to eat, it also serves to augment their voices by publicly putting the companies on notice: business as usual is not good for business. With increased attention on the issue and our scorecard each year, we hope to see 100% participation in the near future.

2.       Fast food companies lead the pack

With more companies participating in the survey and taking actual steps to address routine antibiotics use in their meat and poultry supplies, an interesting result has emerged. The passing grades are almost entirely earned by fast food chains. The array of fast-casual establishments in the top 25, like Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and Buffalo Wild Wings, lag far behind. Many of these companies did not even return the survey. We won’t speculate here as to the reasons for this trend, but there is a clear division in the industry. However, this also represents a significant opportunity to exert targeted pressure. Consumers who frequent these dine-in chains should let them know their quick-service counterparts are leading the pack. You can also add your voice to current public campaigns against some of the laggards within the top 25, including Olive Garden and KFC.

3.       Chicken is where the action is; movement on turkey, beef, and pork is lacking

With the exception of the two pioneers, Panera and Chipotle, the few companies that have acted to date have made commitments or taken steps that apply only to their chicken supply. Similar widespread initiatives have yet to be taken regarding beef, pork, or turkey. The positive movement on chicken could be due to a number of factors. For instance, the birds’ short lifespans in the U.S. (about six to seven weeks) lowers the cost impact for companies of improving living conditions (and thus reducing antibiotic overuse). Also, the chicken industry is significantly integrated. A handful of major companies control most of the large-scale chicken production in the country, many of which have already committed to policies aimed at reducing antibiotics use. But progress on the other species is necessary to achieve critical reductions in on-farm antibiotics use. Companies cannot keep dragging their feet. This is reflected in the company rankings, as only companies that have made commitments and/or progress on multiple species received higher than a C (with the exception of Chick-Fil-A, which only serves chicken and a small percentage of pork).

4.       Big players aren’t the only ones who can make big change

The Chain Reaction II project surveys the top 25 fast and fast-casual restaurant chains in the U.S. These companies have national presence and a ton of buying power. But eliminating the routine use of antibiotics in animals will take a collective effort from all actors, large and small. Smaller and regionally-specific restaurants can have significant impact by addressing their suppliers’ use of antibiotics. Many already have, and received “Honorable Mentions” in the report. Others continue to drag their feet – like In N Out, the iconic burger chain in the southwestern U.S..  In N Out has built a reputation in its region for providing high quality, quick-service burgers. In response to public pressure from CFS and others in January, the chain agreed to address antibiotics use in its beef. Since that time, however, it has yet to move beyond its general statement and establish a timeline for action. Its failure to move beyond a vague commitment goes against the company’s own emphasis on quality and integrity.

5.       We need to look ahead beyond antibiotics

Immediate action to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture and preserve the efficacy of human medicines is critical. But the misuse of antibiotics is a symptom of a much broader problem with the food animal industry – the drive to raise animals as quickly and as cheaply as possible, regardless of consequences. This bigger-picture issue has also encouraged approval of many non-antibiotic drugs for use in food animals, which may pose significant risks to human health, animals and the environment. Of particular concern are groups of drugs used specifically to promote rapid, unnatural growth rates, such as hormones and beta-agonists. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring that drugs are safe before approving their use. Yet the limited scientific research publicly available strongly suggests using these drugs may cause significant harm to food animals, wildlife, and potentially people. Despite known risks, large pharmaceutical companies encourage this drug use to turn a profit. Not only has the FDA sanctioned the use of antibiotics for decades, it has previously approved other drugs that it was later forced to withdraw. CFS and numerous other organizations spent years convincing the agency that the use of arsenic drugs in animal feed was hazardous to human health. We cannot afford for the FDA to drag its feet on antibiotics, hormones, beta-agonists or any other drugs of concern.

While there is much more work to be done, the fact is clear: restaurant chains are listening to consumers, public health professionals, and activists. Even those that received F’s are certainly paying attention and watching their passing-grade competitors closely. Sign our petition telling the 16 “F” companies to adopt strong polices that prohibit the regular use of antibiotics in their meat and poultry.

Until the U.S. government takes strong action to mandate stricter regulations, collect quantitative data on current use practices, and set benchmarks for reductions in use, movement by the restaurant industry is critical for eliminating routine uses of antibiotics in food animals.  Right now, the companies are in the driver’s seat, determining when to announce a strong policy and setting their own deadlines for implementation. Effective government regulation will help guarantee that the meat and poultry served at all restaurants is produced without routine, non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics. This is imperative if we are to effectively address the looming public health crisis of antibiotic-resistant infections.

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