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A Better Burger Is About More Than Counting Calories

August 23rd, 2016
By: Cameron Harsh, Senior Manager for Organic and Animal Policy
Center for Food Safety

Earlier this month, Business Insider published a review pitting burgers from west coast chain In N Out Burger against east coast chain Shake Shack in a “battle for the healthiest fast casual burger shop in America.” For those counting calories and craving burgers, In N Out appears to be the go-to option.

By focusing narrowly on calories, the review missed the most important qualities to consider when comparing the relative healthfulness of the two restaurants’ burgers. Today’s conscious consumer knows that health is about far more than just calories. More and more, consumers are looking for foods of high nutritional value that are produced in ways that protect the environment, animals, and public health. To help consumers make the healthiest choice, a more comprehensive scoring system is needed that considers how the meat was produced, as well as the availability of alternative protein options.

Round 1: Sourcing grass-fed, pasture-raised, or organic beef is healthier for consumers

Consumers are increasingly seeking pasture-raised and grass-fed beef as healthier alternatives to intensive feedlot beef. Meat from grazing animals has been shown to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and lower omega-6 levels than grain-fed animals. Grass-fed beef is also lower in detrimental fats, and higher in vitamin E and vitamin A than grain-fed beef.

Shake Shack purchases the vast majority of its beef from one supplier, a New York City butcher named Pat LaFrieda, who buys beef almost exclusively from Creekstone Farms. Creekstone ensures that its cows spend the majority of their lives grazing on pasture in the Midwest and are only finished on grain rations. In N Out is far more evasive with identifying its suppliers, and has no public commitment to sourcing beef from animals that are grass-fed or grazed on pasture.

WINNER: Shake Shack

Round 2: Prohibiting routine antibiotic use protects public health

There is growing awareness among the public about the overuse of antibiotics in animals raised for food. This awareness is leading many to seek meat and poultry raised in more sustainable systems that do not rely on routine use of antibiotics. Regularly dosing animals with antibiotics for purposes other than treating illnesses has contributed to rising cases of infections in humans that are resistant to important medicines. The spread of resistant pathogens means that infections are harder to treat, require longer hospitalizations, and pose greater risk of death. Choosing meats raised without routine antibiotics is a way for consumers to help curb the spread of resistant pathogens and protect the efficacy of critical human medicines.

Consumer demand led a coalition of advocacy groups, including Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth, to develop an annual survey of the top 25 U.S. restaurant chains and score them on their polices and practices that reduce overuse of antibiotics in their meat and poultry supply. In the 2015 report, Shake Shack received an honorable mention. While not large enough to be in the top 25 nationally, the restaurant sources only beef from cattle that have never received antibiotics. Many of the groups that publish the survey report launched a campaign at the beginning of 2016 asking In-N-Out to eliminate routine use of antibiotics by their beef suppliers. To date, the company has announced an intention to take action on antibiotics but has failed to take substantive steps, such as setting a phase-out timeline. So unfortunately, burger lovers seeking meat raised without antibiotics wont find that yet at In N Out Burger

WINNER: Shake Shack

Round 3: Including meatless options promotes healthy people and a healthy planet

Many scientists, including those who served on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, affirm that reducing consumption of animal products and shifting to a more plant-based diet is critical for both personal and planetary health. Many in the U.S. are already making this shift. Replacing a portion of the animal products in your diet with plant-based foods will reduce the high demand for meat that drives the intensive, polluting, emissions-heavy, industrial feedlot system.

Like a number of other fast-casual restaurant chains, Shake Shack has recognized the increasing demand for vegetarian and plant-based options. Its ‘Shroom Burger offers customers an alternative, inviting vegetarians to the restaurant as well as providing omnivores with the occasional meatless meal option. In-N-Out’s “alternative” burger option, the Protein Style Burger, is the restaurant’s regular cheeseburger with lettuce in place of the traditional bun. Rather than providing a plant-based swap for the beef in one of its menu items, it simply paired the beef with more lettuce.

WINNER: Shake Shack

Overall Healthier Burger Chain—Shake Shack!

There is more to the story of healthy fast food than a simple calorie count. As you can see, a more comprehensive review of the burgers offered at the two chains reveals Shake Shack to be miles ahead when it comes to what matters most. If In-N-Out wants to continue to be competitive, and provide west coast consumers with healthy options, it can start by setting a timetable and making tangible progress on its announcement to address routine antibiotics use by its suppliers. It can offer a meatless burger for the growing number of people seeking to reduce their meat consumption. And, as it works with its conventional suppliers to make the switch, one of the fastest ways to stop sourcing meat raised with routine antibiotics is to offer an organic, healthier, pasture raised burger option. Organic meat is never raised with antibiotics, growth hormones, or toxic pesticides.

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