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Where’s the Meat? Subway Moves to Reduce Antibiotics in Chicken, But Gives No Details or Timelines

September 2nd, 2015
By Cameron Harsh, Research & Programs Manager, Center for Foof Safety
Center for Food Safety

Following calls to action from a variety of public interest groups, Subway appears to be changing its approach on antibiotics use in its meat and poultry supply. The Nation’s Restaurant News  reported on August 28 that the restaurant chain intends to source chicken produced without antibiotics, just days after the kickoff of several high profile campaigns from Center for Food Safety (CFS), US PIRG, Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Keep Antibiotics Working, and others. Subway, the largest restaurant chain in the country, has been slow to act on curbing antibiotic use in meat, while competitors like McDonalds and Chipotle have taken concrete steps and set firm goals.

CFS and our allies are pleased that Subway is already starting to respond to consumer demand to reduce antibiotic use in its meat supply. However, neither the August 28th statement nor the company’s website provides sufficient details, concrete timelines, or third-party verification system that would make up a meaningful antibiotics use policy. The company’s lack of transparency - including its refusal to meet with public interest organizations about this issue - leaves us uncertain of its commitment to change.

The groups are calling on Subway to set clear antibiotics commitments upfront, as specified in their June 23, 2015 letter, so that their suppliers can meet those goals in the future. These are:

  1. Defining a time-bound action plan to phase out any routine use of antibiotics across Subway meat supply chains.
  2. Acting immediately to end the routine use of antibiotics important for human medicine in the production of chicken sold in Subway restaurants; and
  3. Adopting third-party auditing of its antibiotics use policy implementation and benchmark results to show progress in meeting the goals described above.

“If Subway wants to live up to its image as a healthier fast food choice, the company should be a leader in reducing antibiotic use in a meaningful way that inspires consumer confidence,” wrote the groups in the joint statement.

Subway’s statement marks yet another example of a fast food restaurant chain recognizing its import role in reducing the meat industry’s reliance on low, daily doses of antibiotics to boost productivity and inhibit the spread of disease and infection in unsanitary confinement conditions. McDonald’s made a similar announcement to remove sub-therapeutic antibiotics from its chicken supply back in March, but included additional details such as a 2017 deadline and the planned institution of third party verification to ensure compliance. McDonald’s and Subway are the top 2 fast food restaurants in the U.S. in both locations and annual revenue.

The growing number of companies releasing public statements or implementing policies regarding overuse of antibiotics in their meat and poultry supplies is certainly a positive trend. A staggering 70% of medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. in 2013 were distributed to food animal producers. This makes eliminating their unnecessary overuse in agriculture critical to preserving the efficacy of important medicines in treating human infections.

That said, federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been notably slow to take meaningful action on this issue, even though their authority is imperative to guaranteeing that the food industry is held accountable. The FDA, which has authority to approve, deny, and withdraw animal drugs, has to date relied on voluntary measures as a means to encourage best practices by the industry.

Taking a step back, to really fix the problem the food industry must reform the inhumane, unsanitary, and crowded confinement conditions that have come to dominate modern animal agriculture. In the interest of avoiding a chicken-and-egg argument, it’s perhaps impossible to say whether the approval of antibiotics in feed and water spurred the intensification of livestock production, or vice versa. What is certain, however, is that their continued routine use serves to prop up an unsustainable system that compromises animal and public health and wellbeing in the interest of the bottom line.

The industry relies heavily on various drugs and drug combinations to help raise as many animals as possible and make them grow fatter, faster. Without systemic changes to the way animal husbandry is perceived and practiced, removing the routine use of medically important antibiotics will likely only facilitate a dramatic increase in use of other pharmaceuticals to maintain the status quo—such as the beta-agonists ractopamine and zilpaterol, or the many antimicrobials (i.e., antibiotics) not currently considered important to human medicine. The beta-agonist drugs have egregious animal welfare impacts, including inducing rapid heart rate, muscular skeletal tremors, organ damage, and hyper-aggression in animals that receive the drugs. Additionally, residues of these drugs have been detected on meat products in retail stores and their impacts on human health are largely unknown.

The details of Subway’s plans moving forward regarding antibiotic use in its chicken are important in order to fully appraise their recent statement. CFS and other organizations working in this movement are cautiously optimistic, but without transparency there is absolutely no guarantee that Subway’s statement will actually bring about meaningful reforms within the industry. Subway has built its brand as a healthier fast food option, targeting the more health conscious consumer. As public concern for antibiotic resistance grows, along with awareness of the role meat production has played in promoting the development of resistance, it simply makes good business sense for Subway to step up to be a leader on this issue, not a reluctant straggler.

Sign our petition asking Subway to make concrete progress on eliminating routine antibiotic use in its meat supply here!

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