Subway Ditches Artificial Colors, but a More Serious Health Concern Lingers [UPDATED]

The fast-food behemoth may have removed the multiple additives from its subs, but what about all those people dying from antibiotic-resistant infections?

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

UPDATED June 24, 2015
Subway Public Relations Manager Kevin Kane responded via email to our request for comment after the story was published: “Our commitment to serve high quality, affordable food to our customers has always been a cornerstone of the Subway brand. We support the elimination of sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics. This will take time and we continue to work with our suppliers to reach that goal.”

In a bid to avert what experts warn could be a major public health crisis, a broad coalition of public health, environmental, and other groups is calling on fast-food giant Subway to stop serving meat raised with excessive antibiotics.

The coalition of nearly 60 groups, including organizations such as Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, delivered a letter Tuesday to Subway’s president and CEO, Fred DeLuca, urging the chain to act immediately to end the routine use of medically important antibiotics in the production of chicken and to commit to a timetable to phase out such use in all the meat Subway sells, including turkey, beef, and pork.

RELATED: America's Second-Largest Retail Chain Is Cutting Antibiotics From Its Meat

No doubt, as the biggest restaurant chain in the history of the world, a major shift by Subway in sourcing meat raised without the egregious use of antibiotics could have a major impact on the livestock industry. But as significant as such a move would be, it only highlights the alarming dysfunction of our elected officials in Washington and the agencies they control in taking a less-than-lackadaisical approach to addressing one of the most urgent—and utterly preventable—public health menaces of our time.

So, Why Should You Care? As the coalition’s letter to Subway’s CEO cites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections and 23,000 of them die. Worldwide, that total spikes to 700,000 deaths. The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance estimates that if serious action isn’t taken, some 10 million people a year could die as a result of antibiotic-resistant infections by 2050, at a staggering cost of $100 trillion in lost economic output.

“Far from being an apocalyptic fantasy,” the World Health Organization has warned, “a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can kill,…is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

Sounds super scary, right? I mean, we should do something about it—fast. But really, we're not, even though we know what the problem is.

In essence, the livestock industry has been routinely feeding its animals low doses of antibiotics for decades, including antibiotics used to treat people, to make the animals grow bigger and to counter increasingly unsanitary living conditions as factory farms have sought to crowd ever more living creatures into cramped quarters.

According to most estimates, 70 to 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used not to treat people, or even sick animals, but simply to boost the productivity and efficiency of livestock operations. As a result, this profligate use of what were once considered miracle drugs for their ability to cure common and sometimes fatal infections has led to an increasing number of microbes that are resistant to antibiotic treatment.

But the Food and Drug Administration, undoubtedly stymied by politicians with close ties to the livestock industry, has taken only halting action to address the problem. A bill introduced on Capitol Hill earlier this year by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., and Susan Collins, R.-Maine, would have closed some gaping loopholes in the FDA’s policy. After the predictable self-congratulatory press releases and a flurry of media attention, the bill seemed to almost immediately disappear into the black hole of legislative purgatory. Today the website gives it a zero percent chance of being enacted.

Thus, public health advocates and other concerned groups have had to resort to a piecemeal battle: They're trying to persuade the food industry itself to take responsible action. There have been some notable successes: Two of the country’s largest poultry producers, Tyson and Purdue, have agreed to stop using medically important antibiotics in their operations, while McDonald’s announced in March that it would stop serving chicken raised with human antibiotics.

The efforts of these groups deserve a big round of applause, but when it comes to preserving the efficacy of some of the most important medicines known to humankind, should we have to rely on convincing a bunch of corporate CEOs that it’s the right thing to do?