Antibiotics in Fast Food: See How 25 Top Chains Rank
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In the United States, over 70 percent of antibiotics sold are utilized for livestock and are often given to animals as a preventative measure rather than to animals already sick. Antibiotics have been in use since the 1940s. While antibiotics have been effective in treating various bacterial infections over the years, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and numerous health organizations have urged physicians and patients to use antibiotics more cautiously.
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The downside to antibiotic usage is the creation of resistant “superbugs” or pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics and the main source of this problem is the use of antibiotics on farms. These superbugs contaminate meat and poultry, leading to difficult to treat diseases in humans.
Impact of Antibiotic Overuse on Humans
According to the National Resources Defense Council, 2 million Americans contract antibiotic resistant bacterial strains each year, leading to 23,000 deaths and $55 billion lost due to hospitalization and loss of productivity.
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Antibiotic-resistant pathogens are routinely found on animals in slaughter areas, as well as on raw meat in the grocery store. The World Health Organization and the CDC have pointed to antibiotic use in food animals as a source of these superbugs and the growth of antibiotic-resistant infections, including eColi, salmonella, and bacterial urinary tract infections. Resistant bacteria in the gut can share genetic resistance with other gut bacteria. Supplementing with a probiotic can help replace lost gut bacteria the body needs.
Antibiotics fed to livestock don’t remain on the farm; the superbugs or pathogens enter into the environment through wind, runoff, wildlife, and even through workers. The pathogens exchange genetic immunity with other bacterial strains.
Therefore, there has been a push by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and public health experts to drastically limit the use of antibiotics in farming. In fact, this is a global concern and the United Nations General Assembly has passed a declaration to curtail the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The spread of these superbugs isn’t limited to meat; when vegetables and fruit crops are fertilized with animal manure, resistant bacteria can end up in your salad.
Why Antibiotics Are Used on Farms
Antibiotic use in livestock goes back to 1950 when a team of researchers discovered that supplementing animal feed with antibiotics could accelerate growth at less cost than conventional feeding. This discovery led to an increase in supply, as well as dropping prices.
Today, factory farms known as Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) crowd close to 65 billion animals, including chickens, pigs, and cows, into unsanitary living conditions. Antibiotics make it possible for these livestock animals to survive.
Fast Food Restaurants and Antibiotics
Statistics show that 50 million Americans eat fast food every day, including one-third of children. The annual revenue from fast food is around $110 Billion annually. Fast food is big business. On top of that, fast casual dining, limited- or self-service restaurants with typically made-to-order food is increasingly popular. Fast food and fast casual dining represent a significant percentage of animal products consumed by Americans.
One-quarter of all poultry produced in the U.S. is sold to fast food restaurants and McDonald’s is reported to be the largest purchaser of beef. Therefore, the impact of the fast food industry demand on farm policy is monumental.
According to the 2015 Chain Reaction Report on How Top Restaurants Rate on Reducing Use of Antibiotics in Their Meat Supply, only five of the top 25 restaurants had even set a policy a publicized policy to limit use of antibiotics in their meat and poultry supply chain.
In the most recent 2017 report card, over half of the restaurants now have policies in place with commitments to reduce antibiotic usage. This change is primarily with poultry; antibiotic-free beef and pork is much more limited.
The poultry industry has made strides in converting to raising chickens without antibiotics; half of domestic poultry is either produced without antibiotics or will be by 2020.
The Score Card
The Chain Reaction reports, produced by Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Food Safety, Food Animal Concerns Trust, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, are based on several factors.
Forty percent of the score is based on antibiotic policy and whether the company has a timeline. Implementation accounts for 32 percent of the grade and 28% is based on transparency for verification and public awareness.
The number of chains with meaningful antibiotic policies has multiplied since the first 2015 report, tripling the number of chains receiving a passing score.
The Report Card
The Failing Grade
Eleven chains continue to receive an F rating because they have failed to produce any policy or timeline to convert their poultry and meat sources to antibiotic free.
The Bottom Line
The fast food industry continues to be a significant purchaser of all poultry and meat produced in the United States. Barring more comprehensive governmental policy, the market will determine the future of antibiotic usage in livestock. If end consumers do not wish to eat chicken or meat with antibiotics, fast food restaurants may take note.
As you spend your outside dining dollars at fast food and fast casual restaurants, choose chains with antibiotic-free poultry and preferably, antibiotic-free meat. When you purchase meat and chicken for home use, choose free-range and organic, antibiotic-free meat when possible. Switching to plant-based meals even a few days a week can also help.
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