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Yesterday I was in Orlando, Florida to present a shareholder resolution on antibiotics to Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, Yard House and LongHorn Steakhouse, among other casual dining chains. I presented the resolution on behalf of Green Century Equity Fund and its investors.

Darden corporate management was vehemently opposed to the resolution, which simply called for its chains to serve meat from farms that do not misuse antibiotics by routinely given them to livestock and poultry, even when the animals are not sick.

It sounds like a no-brainer, and it should be. 

Antibiotics Program Field Director Matt Wellington at the Darden Annual Shareholders Meeting 

After seeing widespread consumer demand for meat raised without routine antibiotics, and grasping the very real possibility that unless we act soon we may lose these miracle drugs, other major restaurants have stepped up. Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Subway, Chipotle, Shake Shack, Panera Bread, and more have taken concrete steps to source meat raised without the routine use of antibiotics.  

What makes their actions interesting is that most of them are fast-food oriented. While there is a perception among consumers that sit-down restaurant chains are of a higher quality than fast-food chains, McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A are leaving Olive Garden in the dust on the antibiotics issue.

In their opposition to action, Darden emphasized to shareholders that because it is complying with current Food and Drug Administration guidelines on antibiotic use, it is doing enough. It’s not a bad argument at first blush, but when you realize that so many restaurant chains are out in front of the weak government half-measures, it’s clear that Darden, for now at least, is hanging with the laggards on this issue.

Nearly one in ten shareholders voted in favor of Darden no longer sourcing meat raised on routine antibiotics. That might not seem compelling at first, but to put it another way, nearly one in ten shareholders bucked the corporate management’s stern opposition to our resolution. That’s in the first year of filing, and as consumer awareness of this issue goes up, that vote will go up.

Here’s why that matters:

Much of antibiotics use in the U.S. happens not in hospitals or doctors’ offices, but on farms. Roughly 70% of medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on livestock and poultry, and the drugs are often given on a routine basis to animals that aren’t sick to make them grow faster and to prevent disease that can be common in unsanitary conditions. This routine use can breed antibiotic resistant bacteria that can spread to people and cause infections that are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat.

Public health and medical experts ranging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the American Academy of Pediatrics voice concern that the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture contributes to drug resistant bacteria that threaten to undermine modern medicine as we know it.

Despite these warnings, The Food and Drug Administration’s response has largely fallen flat. After the meat industry successfully lobbied against concrete steps to reduce antibiotics use, the FDA put out voluntary guidelines that encourage phasing out antibiotics for growth promotion purposes, but continue to allow routine antibiotic use for disease prevention. So in essence, it’s likely not going to have a significant impact on the meat industry’s antibiotics practices.

Although previous marketplace actions to move beyond the FDA guidelines are significant, we need more major restaurants to get on board. We can’t afford to lose this momentum. Estimates suggest that unless immediate action is taken to reduce unnecessary antibiotics use, antibiotic resistant infections could kill more people worldwide per year by 2050 than cancer kills today.

Last week the United Nations General Assembly convened for a high-level meeting on antibiotic resistance and passed a political declaration calling for increased action to reduce antibiotic use in both human medicine and agriculture.

In regards to changes in the marketplace, David George Velde, a board member of the World Farmers’ Organization, said during the UN meeting that “consumer pressure led to those developments, and it is likely to push forward much of the change that is needed in farm antibiotic use.”

Last Spring Friends of the Earth, along with a coalition of environmental, consumer, and animal welfare groups, delivered a petition signed by more than 130,000 consumers urging Darden to improve their sourcing practices. Their campaign efforts continue to demonstrate widespread consumer support.

Darden can be part of the solution by committing to purchase meat from producers that use antibiotics wisely, i.e. to treat sick animals and not to prevent disease or promote growth. 

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