Eco-conscious burrito chain Chipotle may be known for its strict animal welfare policies, but it's no longer alone. Gradually, more fast-food chains, including McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, have been making commitments about their suppliers' livestock standards, including limiting the use of antibiotics.
Farmers routinely use antibiotics not only to prevent disease, but also because they make the animals grow faster. Scientists worry that the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is promoting the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When these bacteria infect people — for example through meat or produce contaminated with certain kinds of salmonella (here's a chart explaining how this can happen) — the lifesaving antibiotics we currently have can't treat them. More than 2 million people are infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics each year in the U.S., and at least 23,000 people die from these infections, according to the CDC.
As Americans spend half of their food dollars in restaurants, whether companies implement policies limiting antibiotics use in meat is critical to changing the industry. But how far do restaurants' commitments go so far?
A new report ranks the antibiotics policies at 25 of the country's largest restaurant chains. Most of them "have so far failed to effectively respond to this growing public health threat by publicly adopting policies restricting routine antibiotic use by their meat suppliers."
The report was written by a number of advocacy groups: Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumers Union, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Keep Antibiotics Working, and Center for Food Safety.
Only Chipotle and Panera got A's.
"Panera and Chipotle are the only chains that publicly affirm that the majority of their meat and poultry offered is produced without routine use of antibiotics," according to the report. Panera, which started serving chicken raised without antibiotics more than 10 years ago, extended that requirement to to all of the chicken, ham, bacon, sausage, and roasted turkey on its salads and sandwiches.
That's good news, but together these two chains only have roughly 3,500 U.S. locations. "We’d like to see more companies receive A grades, and hope that others will continue to follow our lead," Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold told BuzzFeed News.
Chick-fil-A, Dunkin' Donuts, and McDonald's got passing grades.
Both Chick-fil-A and McDonald's have policies limiting antibiotics use in chicken. Poultry producers appear to be leading the change, with a number of suppliers recently committing to reducing use of human antibiotics, including Perdue and Tyson.
Chick-fil-A's policy, announced in 2014, prohibits the routine use of all antibiotics, and got a B score. About 20% of the chicken it serves now has no antibiotics, and the chain expects to be fully antibiotic-free by 2019.
McDonald’s, which got a C, announced in March that it will only source chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine. However, farmers may still use ionophores, a type of antibiotic not used for humans. Dunkin’ Donuts, meanwhile, has a policy prohibiting the use of antibiotics in healthy animals, but doesn't use third-party audits and is still working with their suppliers to implement this policy.
The remaining 20 chains failed.
According to the authors, chains that got an F either have no disclosed policy on antibiotics use, or the researchers found their policies allow the routine use of antibiotics. Not all of the companies replied to surveys sent out by the authors, who also looked at the companies' websites, annual reports, and other publicly available information on their policies.
BuzzFeed News contacted these restaurants, and some expressed interest in stricter guidelines.
Starbucks said in an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News that it supports "responsible use of antibiotics to support animal health," and while it purchases just a small amount of meat compared to other chains, "we are working with our suppliers to address concerns about antibiotic use."
Domino's said its suppliers "meet all USDA requirements" and it does not purchase chicken or beef given antibiotics for growth promotion. "We rely on farmers and the veterinarians who support them to determine the best way to raise and treat their animals."
The White House has encouraged food companies and retailers to take action against antibiotic resistance. Currently, the FDA has voluntary guidelines for drug companies to make livestock feed containing antibiotics available only with a veterinary prescription (not over the counter), and for the vet only to prescribe this feed to treat, control, or prevent specific diseases, but not to help the animals gain weight.
Advocates, however, say current regulations aren't likely to result in major reductions in antibiotic use. “U.S. restaurant chains must take responsibility for how the meat they sell is contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistance,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, in a statement.
A Papa John's spokesman told BuzzFeed News the chain will announce a policy in 2016 prohibiting chicken treated with antibiotics from being used in its pizzas.