A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council along with its allies Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, Food Animal Concerns Trust, and Center for Food Safety came out this past September with a new report on reducing the rate of antibiotic use in meat supply used by popular restaurant chains.
The six organizations reviewed and rated 25 U.S. fast-food and fast-casual restaurants in the United States along with their overall transparency within each company’s meat and poultry supply chains.
Continuing a trend that began since the first such survey in 2015, most restaurants failed miserably, with 11 major chain restaurants rating an “F” according to the report card and 6 others rating a “D” or “D+.”
Thankfully, two major (and fast-growing) chain restaurants, Chipotle and Panera Bread, received grades of “A” for their commitment to removing antibiotics from their meat (see full list below).
While the report adds that some major chains, including one popular fast food chicken restaurant, have made major strides in the past few years, there is still much work to be done in this and other areas if humanity is to tackle the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance.
And while antibiotics in food are just one piece to the puzzle, they’re an important one — especially when it comes to the intersection of personal health and the health of the environment.
Antibiotic Resistance is a Serious Problem
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines antibiotic resistance as the ability of microbes to adapt and resists the effects of drugs/antibiotics. Annually, about 2 million people become sick with antibiotic resistant bacteria and at least 23,000 die as a result. When livestock receives antibiotics, it often develops antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the animals’ guts. When cooked or handled incorrectly the bacteria can cause an illness in the consumer.
According to the CDC, a lot of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary. There is a link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic-resistance infections in humans, therefore it is important to only use antibiotics in food-producing animals if absolutely necessary to treat a disease and not to “promote growth,” states CDC.
Antibiotic Use in Livestock for Growth
Antibiotics have been used to promote growth in farm animals since the 1940s, and it is taking a while to eradicate this controversial practice, according to Michigan State University. In 2013 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set a plan to eliminate certain antibiotics in food production and promote antibiotic use only when it’s medically necessary. Unfortunately, the plan was implemented on a voluntary basis, and it does not look like many meat producers followed it.
Restaurants’ Meat: Antibiotic-free or not?
The questionnaire for the report asks restaurants if they have a policy about antibiotic use in meat supply, if they prohibit all antibiotic use for growth promotion, or if they prohibit only antibiotics that are also used in human medicine. The restaurants were asked if the policy applies to all meat, only poultry, or only pork or beef. Other questions inquired whether the restaurants offered any 100% grass-fed beef or organic items.
All questions can be fully read in the report.
The responses were analyzed and graded on a scale. Only two restaurants got an “A”, six other restaurants passed with a “B” or a “C”, and 11 restaurants received an “F.” (six also rated “D”).
Despite the urgency of the situation, things do appear to be looking up as the number of companies passing has risen each year, from 5 in 2015 to 9 in 2016. This year was yet another improvement.
“As of September 2017, 14 out of the 25 largest U.S. fast food chains—more than half those surveyed— had adopted publicly available policies that phase out routine use (for growth promotion and disease prevention) of medically important antibiotics in some or all of their meat and poultry supply,” the report said.
Still, it’s important to avoid the worst offenders as much as possible, especially considering the high number of popular restaurants that still received failing grades. See the chart below for more information.
Rated A: Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread
Chipotle’s policy prohibits all antibiotic use — for disease prevention and for growth. In this year’s report it was noted that some type of grass-fed beef is served in over half of its supply.
Panera Bread also reported most of all of its beef served in sandwiches or salads is grass-fed.
“Chipotle and Panera continue to set the bar for the industry, given their full implementation of long-standing policies prohibiting or limiting antibiotics use across nearly all of their supply chains. They remain the only companies to earn ‘A’s in the Scorecard,” the report states.
Rated B+: Subway
Subway has always been seen as one of the healthier chain restaurants, but activists have attempted to poke holes in that image in recent years, pointing out questionable ingredients such as the now-removed “yoga mat” chemical as well as GMO ingredients and antibiotics in its meat supply.
The company has (mostly) gotten the memo and has begun making changes, starting in the area of antibiotics.
As the report notes:
“Subway is the only company with a no-antibiotics policy across its entire meat and poultry supply chain. During this past year, Subway achieved sourcing 100 percent of its chicken as raised without antibiotics and is working towards accomplishing this goal for turkey by 2019. It has a very long timeline for implementing its commitments on beef and pork, however, promising to do so by 2025. Subway earned a ‘B+.’”
Rated B: Chick-fil-A
According to the report, Chick-fil-A states that 70% of its chicken supply will be raised without antibiotics by the end of 2017, and its entire supply chain will meet this goal by the year 2019. Be careful when eating here, however, as the company’s food offerings contain plenty of questionable additives.
Other Companies to Be Aware Of:
While it would be wise for any health conscious consumer to avoid companies like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Wendy’s, it is worth noting the progress they’ve made on antibiotic-free chicken.
Any customer ordering chicken from McDonald’s and Taco Bell are likely to receive a product free from the routine use of antibiotics. Wendy’s says about 50 percent of the chicken it sells meets this standard, and virtually all of it will be antibiotic-free by the end of 2017.
Despite these strides being made, standards for beef and pork are lagging far behind, the reported noted, and that’s a serious problem considering how widely used antibiotics are on these products. See the full report for more details and brand-specific commitments.
Rated F: Dairy Queen, Sonic, IHOP, Buffalo Wild Wings, Little Caesars, Arby’s, Cracker Barrel, Chili’s, Domino’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden
These companies all received failing grades, and are best to be avoided for the foreseeable future.
All of them serve food that is likely to be packed full of GMO ingredients, antibiotics in meat, and plenty of potentially unhealthy and unnatural additives. While the number of restaurants receiving a failing grade has dropped since the 20 that were recorded in 2015’s inaugural report, it’s clear that these companies have not done their part to listen to the concerns of consumers and health advocates.
Be sure to share this information with anyone who still eats at these restaurants, and do your part to support the companies that continue to lead the way as best as you possibly can.