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Shareholders call on food industry heavyweights to do their part in saving antibiotics

By Matt Wellington
Director, Campaign to Stop the Overuse Of Antibiotics

Written by Jordan Miller, U.S. PIRG Digital Campaigner

When it comes to our food, most of us want to know how it’s produced, and where it comes from. Buzzwords such as all natural, free-range, and superfood often leave us wondering what to focus in on and what food fads to simply tune out.

But as trends have come and gone, antibiotic use on farms has remained a looming threat for decades. That’s why the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of investors, recently filed shareholder resolutions on McDonald’s, along with Denny’s and Sanderson Farms, to restrict the use of medically important antibiotics in their meat supply chains.

Chickens, pigs, cows and turkeys are routinely given antibiotics to grow bigger and faster amid unsanitary, crowded living conditions. The routine use of the drugs breeds antibiotic resistant bacteria that can spread from the farm to people in a number of ways, such as through the meat we consume, and environmental factors including water runoff and soil. And the more these resistant bacteria spread among humans and cause illness, the faster our antibiotics stop working.

Without action to reduce antibiotic use in healthcare and agriculture, today’s pesky nuisances such as strep throat or an infected scrape, could once again become life threatening. And medical advancements that rely on effective antibiotics, such as surgery and cancer treatment, will be far more dangerous.

The good news is that when we dine out, we have the choice to purchase meat raised without the routine use of antibiotics. In September, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Consumers Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others launched their third consumer report, Chain Reaction III. The annual report rates the top 25 U.S. food chains on the steps they’ve taken toward sourcing meat raised without the misuse of antibiotics.

Chain Reaction III Scorecard Results

The grades were awarded based on the company’s antibiotics policy, implementation of the policy, and the level of transparency displayed. Restaurants landed all over the scoreboard. A key takeaway from the results is that over half of the restaurants earned passing marks, signifying a big step forward in stopping the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from our food system. Another takeaway is that McDonald’s, the largest U.S. restaurant chain by sales, has only inched from a C to a C+ since the first Chain Reaction report three years ago.

McDonald’s responded to consumer concerns in March 2015 by committing to eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics in its U.S. chicken supplies — a commitment it has since fulfilled. And the fast food heavyweight recently announced a vision to expand its antibiotic stewardship to pork and beef as well, but thus far hasn’t released concrete timelines for turning that vision into a reality.

It’s time to start asking what’s next for the golden-arched industry leader.

The home of the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder has the opportunity to emerge once again as a leader in antibiotic stewardship by establishing tangible goals and a timeline for eliminating routine antibiotic use in its pork and beef supply chains.

Food industry leaders need to acknowledge that this isn’t just some health craze swirling around social media; we could lose our ability to treat infections and save lives. And they can be an important part of the solution. It’s no coincidence that more than half of the top 25 restaurant chains have started to phase routine antibiotic use out of their meat supply chains, largely in the last three years, and now the latest FDA numbers show the first year to year decrease in sales of medically important antibiotics to animal agriculture since reporting began.

Sea changes never occur overnight, but with each restaurant that decides to make antibiotic stewardship a key part of their recipe, the better our chances of preserving the foundation of modern medicine. And the larger the restaurant, the better. That’s why McDonald’s should listen to shareholder concerns, and take the next step to save antibiotics.

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