From McDonald’s to Tyson, pledges to curb antibiotics in commercial meat and poultry have become more common in recent years. But at least for now, meat raised on drugs is still the norm in the country’s most popular restaurant chains, according to a report released Tuesday.
“Chain Reaction,” a joint study from six leading consumer, public health, and environmental groups, graded 25 of the largest fast food and fast casual chains in the United States on their policies regulating antibiotic use in their supply chains. Only five received a passing grade: Chipotle, Panera, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, and Dunkin Donuts. Panera and Chipotle, both of which have long made responsible food sourcing a major part of their branding, received the only two “A” grades.
Farmers have long used antibiotics commonly found in human medicine to speed up growth and prevent illnesses in livestock – between 70 and 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the US are used in factory farms. Public health advocates have been warning against the practice for years, saying it increases the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains in humans and animals.
Those calls have become louder in recent years as reports of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” have grown. According to The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections every year. It’s a major issue for the World Health Organization, which launched its first global report on antibiotic resistance in 2014.
The food industry has started to respond, albeit slowly. Last year Chick-fil-A, the largest commercial poultry buyer in the country, pledged to go completely antibiotic-free by 2019. This past spring, McDonald’s (no slouch in the chicken-buying department, either), said it will phase out chicken raised with antibiotics “important to human medicine” from its US restaurants over the next two years. Poultry suppliers, including Tyson and Perdue, have made similar commitments.
"Antimicrobial use in food animals is an issue that impacts people and animals. Global organizations like McDonald's Corporation need to pay attention to it," McDonald's said upon announcing its policy change in March.
But those policies are still the exception, and most major chains have no clear supply policy on antibiotic use.
“From bacon cheeseburgers to chicken nuggets, most meat served by America's chain restaurants comes from animals raised in industrial-scale facilities, where they are routinely fed antibiotics,” Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group, in the report’s release. “It’s time for the restaurant industry to take leadership…by working with their meat and poultry suppliers to eliminate the routine use of antibiotics and improve overall conditions in US meat production.”
Twenty popular fast food chains received “F” grades, “either for having no disclosed policy on antibiotic use in their meat and poultry supply chains, or for having policies that fail to phase out continued, routine use of medically important antibiotics in the production of the meats they purchase and serve," on the report scorecard: Applebee’s, Arby’s, Burger King, Chili’s, Dairy Queen, Denny’s, Domino’s, IHOP, Jack in the Box, KFC, Little Caesars, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse Grill and Bar, Papa John’s Pizza, Pizza Hut, Sonic, Starbucks, Subway, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s.
The report comes as consumers, who spend close to half their food budgets in restaurants, are increasingly mindful of what goes into their food, and showing with their purchases. Between 2009 and 2012, sales of meat raised without antibiotics grew an estimated 25 percent, according to the report.