Even with the growing threat of drug-resistant “superbugs,” most of America’s top fast-food chains still serve meat from farm animals that have been routinely fed antibiotics, and very few of those restaurants have laid out plans to curb the practice, a new report reveals.
The report, compiled by a coalition of consumer, health, and environmental groups, evaluated the 25 largest fast food restaurants in the country on their antibiotic policies and the transparency with which they implement them.
All but five of the companies received a failing grade.
Only two companies — Panera and Chipotle — earned an “A.” Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts were the only others that received passing grades.
“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 to prevent disease that is easily spread in crowded, unsanitary, stressful conditions,” Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth, one of the groups that authored the report, said in a statement.
“It’s time for the U.S. restaurant industry to take leadership and address the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance by working with their meat and poultry suppliers to eliminate the routine use of antibiotics and improve overall conditions in U.S. meat production,” she added.
The growing threat of antibiotic resistance
The vast majority of antibiotics sold in the United States — about 80 percent — are used in livestock, often for “nontherapeutic” uses such as promoting faster growth or reducing the risk of infections in animals living in unsanitary conditions. Factory farms and large-scale food manufacturers in the U.S. pump more than 30 million pounds of antibiotics into animals every year.
Over the past few decades, the widespread use of these antibiotics has fortified common bacteria like E. Coli and salmonella, making them stronger and more resistant to the antibiotics available to treat them. As a result, more than half of all U.S. meat contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has named antibiotic resistance as one of the top five public health threats facing the U.S. population. Each year, more than 2 million people across the country get infections that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die as a result. Experts say the overuse use of antibiotics in the food supply is one of the main factors contributing to the “emergence, persistence, and spread of drug-resistant bacteria.”
And the problem is only getting worse. A British-commissioned review released late last year warned that unless adequate measures are taken to combat drug resistance, global deaths from superbug infections could increase to a staggering 10 million annually by 2050. The rapid growth of antibiotic resistance could mean “the end of modern medicine as we know it,” the World Health Organization cautioned in a 2014 report.
Yet even in the face of these dire warnings, research shows that the quantity of antibiotics given to livestock has actually increased quite dramatically in recent years.
Failing marks across the board
“Overusing antibiotics in meat production helps to create drug-resistant superbugs — our nation’s largest chain restaurants can be part of the problem, or part of the solution,” Dr. David Wallinga, Senior Health Officer with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the organizations that authored the new report, said in a statement.
After assessing the policies of the 25 fast food and restaurant chains, the groups found that only Panera and Chipotle were worthy of “A” grades, as both restaurant chains have a wide variety of meat offerings that do not use antibiotics.
Chick-fil-A, which earned a “B” rating, has policies limiting its use of antibiotics in the chicken it serves and has pledged to be 100 percent antibiotic-free by 2019.
Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s both received “C” grades. Though Dunkin Donuts has a policy limiting antibiotic use in the meat it serves, the researchers found the company does not have a timeline for achieving that goal. Earlier this year, McDonald’s announced that within two years it would only serve chicken raised without use of medically important antibiotics in its U.S. locations. But the company has not disclosed how much of its chicken currently meets this standard and has not extended this policy to the beef and pork served in its restaurants.
The report also points out that many other popular chains have either no disclosed policy on antibiotic use in their meat and poultry suppliers or have policies that fail to phase out the routine use of antibiotics.
These chains, all of which received an “F” on the scorecard, include 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.
Ending the ‘suspicious silence’
The report specifically singled out Subway — the largest fast-food chain in the world — for failing to address the issue of antibiotic use in its meat supply. While the company has long tried to differentiate itself as being the healthy option in a world of burger joints, it still hasn’t publicly stated a policy or plan to cut antibiotic use in the meats it buys, despite repeated requests by the report’s authors for clarification. In August, the Natural Resources Defense Council announced a public campaign and petition 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.”
Research for the report, including the survey of the top 25 chains, was jointly compiled by Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumers Union, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Keep Antibiotics Working, and Center for Food Safety.
The report concludes by calling for all fast food and fast casual restaurant chains to take steps to reduce the use of antibiotics in the meat and poultry they serve, pointing out that if successful brands like Chipotle can do it, others can too.
This recommendation was backed up by a letter — signed this week by more than 100 organizations — demanding that U.S. chain restaurant industry leaders publicly adopt a policy that prohibits the use of antibiotics in its meat and poultry products. Their appeal referenced previous successful efforts challenging lawmakers on the subject and cited a 2012 survey that showed that a majority of consumers were willing to pay more money for antibiotic-free food products.