Twenty-two of the 25 top burger chains in the U.S. get a failing grade when it comes to having meaningful policies on antibiotic use by their beef suppliers. That’s the finding of a joint report from the Center for Food Safety, Consumer Reports, Friends of the Earth, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, and U.S. PIRG Education Fund. The report—the fourth in the organizations’ Chain Reaction series, though the first to focus specifically on burgers—grades fast-food and fast-casual restaurants in three areas: policy, implementation, and transparency.
Only two chains in the report—Burger Fi and Shake Shack—received “A” grades for having good policies in place, as shown in the graphic below. The only other chain not to fail, Wendy’s, earned a “D-minus“ for committing to source a portion of its beef from companies working to reduce antibiotic use in their beef.
California’s beloved fast-food purveyor In-N-Out was among the restaurants that received a failing grade. Although the company publicly pledged in 2016 to source meat raised without routine antibiotics, it has not yet committed to a timeline to implement this pledge, nor has it identified third-party auditors or established a formal antibiotics policy.
Currently, almost 70 percent of the medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are for use in food animals, not human medicine. Of those, the beef industry accounts for 43 percent. Health authorities including the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) have linked the use of antibiotics in food animals to the spread of difficult-to-treat drug-resistant infections in humans. The Chain Reaction report describes how much of the antibiotic use in cattle is not for treating sick animals but rather to prevent diseases caused by an unhealthy system for raising cattle.
Also see Antibiotics in Farm Animals: Enough!
“Cattle are adapted to graze on pasture. We could eliminate most of the antibiotic use in the cattle sector by keeping cattle on pasture longer and making sure they get enough hay at the feedlot,” said Steven Roach, Food Safety Program Director for the Food Animal Concerns Trust, which promotes the safe and humane production of meat, milk, and eggs. Antibiotics could then be reserved for treating the much fewer sick cattle, Roach said.
While some food companies have responded to efforts to reduce antibiotic use in meat production by marketing products as “raised without antibiotics,” the report’s authors support the use of medically important antibiotics to treat sick animals. The report assigns grades based on whether or not burger chains had policies that prohibited the use of medically important antibiotics in cattle that were not sick. This is in alignment with WHO guidelines released in 2017, which recommend the elimination of the use of medically important antibiotics in food animals when there are no clinical signs of disease.
The 2017 Chain Reaction report, which focused on chicken as well as beef and pork, was more encouraging, with more than half of the 25 chain restaurants verified to have good policies in place to help reduce antibiotic use in the poultry industry.
What you can do
While the Chain Reaction reports can be used by consumers to make purchasing choices, the primary goal is to encourage restaurant chains to adopt better policies on antibiotics. As some of the largest buyers of meat, these chains can be a powerful force to help reduce antibiotic overuse in food production. FACT and the other Chain Reaction groups actively campaign to get the companies to make such changes. Consumers can help by contacting the companies through social media or customer feedback portals on company websites and asking for products produced with fewer antibiotics. You can also sign up to receive action alerts through FACT's and the other groups' websites. With antibiotic resistance threatening to reverse the medical advances of the 20th century, all sectors of society, including the food industry, need to act.
Also see Curbing Antibiotic Overuse in Animals.