Fast Food Isn’t Doing Enough When It Comes to Antibiotics

Chains have made promises to remove drugs from their meat-supply chains, which is lauded in a new report, but action is needed.
‘Chain Reaction II’ report cover. (Photo: Courtesy Kate Colwell/Friends of the Earth)
Sep 20, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Considering the swirl of headlines these past couple years touting this or that restaurant chain’s vow to go antibiotic-free when it comes to meat, you could be forgiven for thinking that the industry has come a long way in doing its part to tackle one of the most potentially devastating health crises of our time.

Simply put, it hasn’t.

That’s the takeaway from a report released Tuesday by a coalition of nonprofit environmental and public health advocacy groups—including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth—that follows up on a similar report from last year.

Or, at least, that’s my glass-is-more-than-half-empty takeaway. The coalition, which no doubt deserves tremendous credit for attempting to do something—anything—about the escalating crisis of disease-causing antibiotic-resistant bacteria in America as the laggards at the Food and Drug Administration more or less do nothing, puts a more positive spin on things. Compared with last year, the report points out, twice as many of the nation’s top 25 restaurant chains received a passing grade for working to eliminate or reduce the use of antibiotics in the meat they sell. So progress has been made, but what does that really mean?

For starters, that means only nine scored the equivalent of a D or higher. A paltry four scored either an A or a B. Meanwhile, 16 chains—among them big names like Starbucks, Burger King, Olive Garden, Domino’s, and Jack in the Box—were given an F, which means they have taken “no action to reduce the use of antibiotics in their supply chains,” according to the current report.

(Chart: Courtesy

You’ve probably read the dire warnings about antibiotic-resistant infections from the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, or really, pretty much anywhere else that matters when it comes to public health. If, like me, you want to avoid the kind of antibiotic-riddled factory-farmed meat that’s fueling the growing epidemic of drug-resistant superbugs, there are but two big chains whose food you can eat in good conscience: Panera Bread and Chipotle.

No surprise there. Those were the only chains to receive an A grade on the coalition’s report last year.

The seven chains that got at least a passing grade represent a range of effort that is liable to befuddle the average consumer. Both Subway and Chick-fil-A are given respectable B’s, but because the coalition’s criteria favor robust, public-facing commitments to reduce the use of antibiotics in meat rather than the implementation of those commitments, you’re not likely to find much antibiotic-free meat at either chain today. While Subway gets kudos for promising to end the use of antibiotics across its entire meat supply—it’s the largest chain by far to make such a sweeping commitment—the company won’t do so until 2025, nine long years away. Only in the area of chicken has Subway made much progress. Even so, you’ve only got a two-in-three chance of being served antibiotic-free chicken at Subway and even less of one at Chick-fil-A, where it’s just one in four.

Meanwhile, at McDonald’s, which scored a C+, you have a 100 percent chance of noshing on McNuggets made with chicken that doesn’t use antibiotics that are important to human medicine. But the country’s biggest burger chain remains frustratingly vague on its commitment to switching entirely to antibiotic-free beef and pork, as do any number of other chains that scored a passing grade.

This is where it all starts to feel ridiculous. I shouldn’t even be writing this column because in all honesty, we shouldn’t be relying on an ad hoc group of nonprofit organizations to defend the efficacy of one of the most important classes of medicine known to humankind. Why? Because, to be blunt, the Food and Drug Administration should be doing its bleeping job.

Despite ever more scary developments worthy of a Hollywood medi-scare drama—such as the discovery in the U.S. last spring of a gene that can easily confer resistance in bacteria to one of our last remaining antibiotics of last resort—the FDA continues to allow the livestock industry to ply animals with copious amounts of antibiotics, including many of the same drugs we rely on to fight infections in people. More than two-thirds of all the antibiotics used in the United States are used in animals—not to treat animals that are sick, mind you, but simply to prevent disease in what are often the abysmally filthy, overcrowded conditions of your average factory farm.

So yes, by all means, support those restaurant chains that have taken meaningful action to curb antibiotic abuse—including the smaller chains that the authors of the new report give a shout-out to, such as Au Bon Pain, Noodles & Co., and Papa Murphy’s. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that when it comes to protecting something as important as humanity’s last line of defense against a host of infectious agents, we should be putting our faith in the good intentions of a handful of restaurant industry CEOs.