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Antibiotic Resistance -- with a side order of fries?

Posted Sep. 15, 2015 / Posted by: Kari Hamerschlag

New scorecard shows most chain restaurants failing to address antibiotics crisis

From chicken nuggets to bacon double cheeseburgers, most meat served by leading chain restaurants comes from animals raised on industrial farms, where excessive use of antibiotics in their feed is routine. This rampant misuse of antibiotics on factory farms reduces the drugs’ effectiveness when we need them most: when our parents get a life-threatening pneumonia or our kids get a staph infection. 

America’s top chain restaurants, which serve up huge portions of the nation’s meat, are doing little to address the growing public health crisis of antibiotic resistance, according to a new report and scorecard released today by Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumers Union, FACT, Center for Food Safety and Keep Antibiotics Working.

Public health agencies have declared antibiotic resistance a top health threat in the U.S. -- and the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production is a major cause. As the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control said in a 2013 report, “Up to half of antibiotic use in humans and much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.” According to the CDC, at least two million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections, each year and 23,000 die as a result.

Despite the major health risk, most top chain restaurants -- have failed to take responsibility, or use their economic clout to demand meat produced without routine antibiotics, shows the reportChain Reaction: How Top Restaurants Rate on Reducing Use of Antibiotics in Their Meat Supply.

According to the scorecard, only a handful of the nation’s top restaurant chains have seized this opportunity to enhance public health and meet the growing consumer demand for meat raised without routine drugs. Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill -- both of which scored A's -- are the only chains that primarily serve meat produced without antibiotics, hormones and other growth promoters.

A few other chains are making progress: “Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s have established policies limiting antibiotic use in their chicken with implementation timelines, while Dunkin’ Donuts has a policy covering all meats but has no reported timeline for implementation," according to the report. The scorecard gives McDonald’s a C, since it has only committed to eliminating routine antibiotics use in chicken, but has no similar policies for pork and beef; the company has yet to report how much chicken served in the restaurant meets its new policy. Burger King, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and 17 other restaurants, however, earned the grade: F.

A stunning 70 percent of all antibiotics important in human medicine are sold for use in animal agriculture, and fed routinely to animals that are not sick, to promote growth and prevent diseases that spread easily in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

Despite decades of public pressure, the meat and pharmaceutical industries have continually thwarted meaningful legislation restricting on the routine use of antibiotics in agriculture, and recent steps by the US FDA to enact voluntary measures fall far short, the report concludes.

Amid these policy failures, the report and a sign-on letter from 109 organizations urges the nation’s top restaurant chains to step up to the plate and help address the antibiotic resistance crisis, by committing to source their meat only from producers that prohibit routine antibiotics use. 

Restaurant chains that get failing grades for inaction on this critical health issue are missing a major business opportunity as consumers demand healthier, more sustainable meat. In a recent survey of American adults, Crain’s Chicago Business found at least 34 percent would be more likely to eat at McDonalds if they served meat raised without antibiotics and hormones. As the report documents, “Between 2009 and 2012, sales of meat raised without routine antibiotics rose by 25 percent and USDA certified organic meats (produced without antibiotics) was the fastest growing segment of the $31 billion organic foods industry in 2011.”

Across the U.S., the rapid growth of regional restaurant chains such as Shake Shack, Elevation Burger, BurgerFi and Burgerville shows that offering organic, grass-fed, or other meat raised without antibiotics or hormones is good business. Restaurants like Subway that promote a healthy image would do well to learn from these successful chains: Subway received an F in our scorecard despite recent press statements that they are moving to source meat raised without routine antibiotics. The world’s largest restaurant chain has failed to share specific goals, targets, and timelines with the public, despite repeated attempts to reach the company. Friends of the Earth and several other organizations have launched a campaign urging Subway to source meat raised without routine antibiotics.

Beyond the scope of this scorecard, fast food/casual chain restaurants face critical questions about the many labor, animal welfare or environmental impacts associated with the meat they source from industrial operations. Extensive research shows that so-called “cheap” fast food comes at a great cost to consumers and taxpayers, in the form of worker injuries, abusive animal welfare practices, air and water pollution, and public health costs.

The industry’s overuse of antibiotics and hormones reflects this larger abandonment of responsibility and good farm management. As the report states, “Restaurant chains must also play a role in encouraging their suppliers to improve management practices in their facilities. Reduced crowding, more hygienic conditions, better diets … among other changes, improve animal welfare and reduce the likelihood of disease and the need for routine drugs.”

Companies can change deplorable conditions in these facilities by demanding changes of their suppliers. Restaurants that show true leadership by responding to consumer demand for better sourcing practices will be rewarded in the marketplace, while others risk being left behind. Such improvements would be a true “win-win” -- for consumers, companies, farm animals, and the environment.

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