WASHINGTON, D.C. — Most top restaurant chains in the United States have failed to adopt policies to stop the overuse of antibiotics by their beef suppliers, according to the sixth annual Chain Reaction scorecard released today by six major consumer, public health and environmental organizations. One notable exception is Wendy’s, which announced a new policy this spring to end all routine use of medically important antibiotics in the company’s beef supplies by the end of 2030.
While Wendy’s managed to boost its grade level, most companies surveyed reported no progress in 2020 on their antibiotics commitments. Most notably, McDonald’s, the world’s largest beef buyer, failed to meet its own internal deadline to set antibiotic reduction targets by the end of 2020.
“As the last year has clearly shown, prompt, effective action can greatly reduce the impact of a public health threat and inaction can make things much worse. Antibiotic resistance is one of these threats.” said Steven Roach, lead author and Safe and Healthy Food Program Director at Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT). “We applaud Wendy’s commitment on antibiotic use in beef and urge the company to implement its pledge as quickly as possible.We also need much broader action from the beef and restaurant sectors if we want to stop the urgent public health crisis of antibiotic resistance.”
The Chain Reaction Report was produced by Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University (ARAC), Center for Food Safety (CFS), Consumer Reports, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and U.S. PIRG Education Fund.
Leader and Lagger Restaurants by Grade
The report grades the top 20 fast food and casual sit-down restaurant chains nationwide on the antibiotic use policies and practices behind the beef served in their restaurants.
Wendy’s, the third largest burger chain in the country, moved up to a “C” grade from last year’s “D+” for its recent commitment to prohibit the routine use of medically important antibiotics in its beef supplies by the end of 2030. The restaurant chain is also pledging to track and report on the use of antibiotics in its beef supply by 2024.
“Despite Wendy’s progress, it is disappointing that most companies have yet to make robust changes to the antibiotic use policies in their beef supply chains,” said Julia Ranney, Research and Policy Associate at CFS. “The COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored the urgent need to reduce the use of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture in order to prevent another disastrous public health outcome. We expect more from the industries that feed us.”
Twelve chains earned “F” grades for taking no public action to reduce antibiotic overuse in their beef supplies: Starbucks, Burger King, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Sonic, Olive Garden, Buffalo Wild Wings, Little Caesars, Arby’s, Dairy Queen, Jack in the Box and Panda Express.
Subway and McDonald’s earned “C” grades for adopting responsible antibiotic use policies but neither has begun implementing them. Subway reported no progress on its goal to implement responsible antibiotic use by 2025, and as noted above, McDonald’s failed to honor its commitment to set antibiotic reduction targets in its beef supply by the end of 2020.
“McDonald’s acknowledged back in 2018 that antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today. So, it is profoundly disappointing that the company is failing to live up to its pledge,” said Matt Wellington, Public Health Campaigns Director at U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “If McDonald’s stands by its promise, it will compel meat producers to take action that can protect us all from antibiotic-resistant superbugs. It’s time for the world’s largest fast food chain to put some beef behind its commitments and not chicken out.”
Taco Bell earned a “D” grade again for maintaining its commitment to reduce medically important antibiotic use in its beef supplies by 25 percent by 2025 but also did not report taking any steps to meet this commitment in 2020.
Applebee’s and IHOP each moved from an “F” to a “D” grade for serving a limited amount of responsibly raised beef at their restaurants.
Top performers were once again Chipotle and Panera. Both companies earned “A” grades for the sixth year in a row.
Building Solutions by Building Pressure
“Consumers are concerned about antibiotics losing their effectiveness and want restaurants and meat producers to adopt more responsible practices,” said Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumer Reports. “Fast food restaurants have tremendous market power and can help address our antibiotics crisis by requiring their beef suppliers to stop misusing these life-saving drugs.”
Consumer pressure coupled with significant and immediate federal policies can help alleviate emerging novel infections–oftentimes, originating in animals before spreading to people via the food supply.
“The global health threat from antibiotic resistance demands bold government leadership and the U.S. must work harder to curb the enormous overuse of medically important antibiotics in the livestock sector,” notes Lena Brook, Director of Food Campaigns at NRDC. “Most urgently, the U.S should set national targets to reduce the overall use of these antibiotics, especially in beef and pork production, and develop a robust system to track antibiotic use and bacterial resistance at the farm level.”
A two-pronged federal approach focusing on reduction targets and tracking of antibiotics has proven successful in several European countries and ought to serve as a roadmap for the current Biden administration. The Chain Reaction report details additional opportunities for state and local regulators and policymakers, investors, and public and private meat buyers to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis.
The overuse of antibiotics is the primary driver for the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance. Like COVID-19, antibiotic resistance is an urgent public health crisis across the globe. Infectious disease experts have warned about bacterial resistance to antibiotic medicines for decades. Resistance in infections leads to more severe illness, more and longer hospital stays, higher medical costs, and increased mortality.
“Antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest threats to public health today and overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is one of the driving forces behind this crisis,” said Laura Rogers, Deputy Director at ARAC. “Genuinely responsible use of antibiotics needs to be addressed in conjunction with improved animal health and welfare practices to decrease disease risks and minimize the need for antibiotics in the first place.”
In the U.S., almost two-thirds of medically important antibiotics are sold for food animal use and this use contributes significantly to the resistance problem. Recently published estimates indicate that between 35,000 and 162,000 Americans die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections.
Restaurant chains as well as other sectors of the food industry should act to reduce antibiotic overuse in order to limit the devastating impacts of the spread of antibiotic resistance.
Michael McCauley, email@example.com, 415-902-9537