The World's Largest Fast-Food Chain Is Being Called Out Over Antibiotics

The Natural Resources Defense Council is calling on Subway to address the drugs used in the livestock it buys.

(Photo: Flickr)

Aug 26, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

After McDonald’s, Costco, and Tyson all announced this year that they would move away from antibiotics for their poultry products, the issue of medically important drugs used in raising chickens went mainstream. The firms are leaders in their fields, with Costco second only to Walmart in terms of food retail. These are big businesses making a big change that could have an outsize effect on public health—but not everyone in their respective industries is picking up the new normal.

Take Subway: In terms of the sheer number of locations, it’s the largest fast-food chain in the world. While it has long tried to differentiate itself as being the healthy option in a world of burger joints, Subway hasn’t addressed the issue of antibiotic use in its meat supply. On Wednesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council announced a public campaign calling on the chain to do so.

“Subway has been suspiciously silent on its antibiotic policies at a time when a flood of other industry leaders are stepping up to address the health threat of antibiotic abuse in meat production,” Lena Brook, NRDC’s food policy advocate, said in a press release. “If Subway wants to be seen as serving a healthier alternative to fast food, it should assure its customers that it’s serving meat from farms where antibiotics are not over-used.”

The group is pressuring Subway with a petition campaign and billboard ads along Interstate 95 in and around Milford, Connecticut, where the chain is based. The petition, addressed to CEO Fred Deluca and President Suzanne Greco, notes that “over 70 percent of antibiotics important to human medicine are not actually used to treat sick people, but are sold instead for use in food animal production, often in animals that are not sick.”

Campaign ad from the NRDC. (Photo: Natural Resources Defense Council/Facebook)

According to the latest numbers published by the Food and Drug Administration—which only keeps track of sales of drugs, not what’s used and on which species—the livestock industry purchased 32.6 million pounds of antibiotics in 2013, and 62 percent of those were drugs that are important to human medicine.

Subway’s website says that the company supports ending the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics, which is the industry standard practice of feeding animals a small, routine dose of drugs to promote weight gain. The FDA announced voluntary regulations in 2013 with the same goal. But a study from Pew found that a quarter of the antibiotics that would have their prophylactic uses, including “feed efficiency” and “weight gain,” removed from labeling language can still be used “for disease prevention at levels that are fully within the range of growth promotion dosages and with no limit on the duration of treatment.” In other words, it's largely business as usual.