Avoiding Antibiotics in Meat? Only Three Fast-Food Chains Make the Grade

A new scorecard finds that few are doing enough to address the use of drugs in their meat supply.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Sep 15, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for Popular Science, The Awl, BuzzFeed, Modern Farmer, Gawker, Fast Company, and elsewhere.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its first data on the effects of the routine overuse of antibiotics in the country—in hospitals and in doctor’s offices, sure, but also on the country’s chicken, beef, and pork farms. Every year, more than 2 million are sickened by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and at least 23,000 die annually. (The New York Times noted that the latter figure is likely “very conservative.”) The CDC concluded its report by ranking antimicrobial resistance as one of the top-five health concerns facing the country. Yet a survey published Tuesday of the top-25 fast-food chains in the U.S. found that only five even bother to provide a policy that indicates the barest awareness of the problem. More than half scored a whopping zero points out of a possible 36 in their response to a huge health crisis.

The survey, though not the deepest dive into livestock conditions, provides a first: an easy guide to how popular chain restaurants, from McDonald’s to Starbucks, are addressing an issue that is fully in their power to address. The hope is that it’ll bring awareness to the general public and be a prod to the chains: No business likes to be scored with a big fat red letter F. First off: There’s nothing wrong with antibiotics when used in a sensible way. When animals (including us) contract a bacterial infection, an antibiotic is often the best and fastest way to safely treat them. But that’s not really what we’re talking about when we talk about antibiotic use in the livestock industry. Instead, large-scale farmers often routinely mix in antibiotics with food, a practice designed to prevent the diseases that would naturally stem from the horrid conditions animals in factory farms face, and to accelerate the animal’s growth. (FDA regulations now ban the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, but critics say a loophole allows the standard practice to continue.) This isn’t treatment of a sick animal; it’s a strategy to keep an animal healthy in a scenario in which that animal has no right to demand health—and to get more meat to sell too.

RELATED: How Science Is Strengthening the Link Between Antibiotics in Meat and Human Health

The problem comes from the impressive ability of nasty bacteria, when faced with an obstacle like an antibiotic, to figure out a way to work around it, to mutate and survive in spite of it. The more antibiotics are used, the better chance the bacteria has to learn about the antibiotic and defeat it, which requires more and different antibiotics, which then forces the bacteria to become even stronger, and on and on. The cycle is called bacterial resistance, and it has real, devastating effects. Existing antibiotics, which in some cases took decades to create, can become useless. So bacterial diseases we thought we’d cured all of a sudden rear their heads, stronger than ever. This isn’t a small thing, and it isn’t a pet cause for hippies. People die from this.

So where does the new scorecard come in?

“These restaurant chains really have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to address this antibiotic-resistance crisis, by using their huge purchasing power to shift production practices towards meat raised without the routine use of antibiotics and other drugs,” said Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager of the Food and Technology Program at the environmental group Friends of the Earth. Hamerschlag was one of the lead authors of the study, a joint effort from groups including the policy wing of Consumer Reports, the Center for Food Safety, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Friends of the Earth. McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, and the rest of the top-25 restaurant chains aren’t captives; they have the power to demand change in production. So how do they fare?

(Chart: Courtesy CivilEats.com)

Not very well, on the whole. The scorecard is a combination of a survey supplied to all top-25 chains and a bit of research that attempted to find out anything the team could about the restaurants’ policies on the issue. Only seven of the companies took the survey, though a few others replied in other ways. The survey awarded points for having a policy, for applying that policy to all kinds of meat served, for making that policy available online, for carrying out the policy and making antibiotic-free meat available to consumers, for boasting independent third-party audits of the supply chain, and finally, for replying to the survey. (It’s not a long survey, by the way. Hamerschlag estimates it would take less than an hour to complete.)

Results were surprising. The best-scoring chains were Chipotle, Panera, and Chick-fil-A. The last is a bit of a wild card. “I would say, surprisingly, that Chick-fil-A is one of the most transparent companies on this survey,” said Hamerschlag. But none achieved a perfect score for the simple reason that every single chain serves at least some meat treated routinely with antibiotics.

McDonald’s, the country’s largest restaurant chain, which announced earlier this year that it would cut antibiotics from its poultry supply, scored higher than most; its biggest problem is that its policy doesn’t apply to the meat it sells the most of—beef. “We're really pushing McDonald's to apply its good policy to pork and beef as well as chicken, but so far it only applies to chicken,” Hamerschlag said. Still, that’s a lot more than chains as varied as KFC, Starbucks, Outback Steakhouse, Taco Bell, and Olive Garden can say. None would take the survey, and of that group, Starbucks is the only chain to score any points at all—for having a policy online that Hamerschlag describes as “vague” and inadequate.

The scorecard is meant as an easy-to-understand guide; it grades the chains on a school ranking, from A to F. It is not an aggressive, investigative look at supply chain policy; the results are largely self-reported, and nobody from the survey went out to farms supplying meat to check to see if the companies told the truth. Even given those limitations, the scorecard is a useful tool of awareness and will only become more so with updates. A major issue is that the companies can secure points just for releasing a statement noting that they’re aware of the problem, with little motivation to put a policy into action. “We plan to make this an annual survey,” said Hamerschlag. “And I think next year, and over time, if companies are not making any progress on their policies, they will be docked in the scorecard.”

As the scorecard expands over time, it could remind the old titans of American fast food that upstarts like Shake Shack aren’t only stealing business because they’re new and cool. “The report highlights many regional chains that are growing rapidly and that are having great economic success by responding to consumer demand for meat that's raised without the routine use of antibiotics and other drugs,” said Hamerschlag. “The companies that are offering better-quality alternatives are doing well, including Chipotle and Panera. And the companies that don't change with the market demand really risk losing business.” If the McDonald’s, Subways, and Taco Bells of the world don’t respond to warnings issued by the CDC or the lax regulations of the FDA, perhaps they’ll respond to the almighty dollar.