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Nation's Restaurant News: More chains commit to antibiotic-free chicken: survey

Published: 29 Sep 2017

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The nation’s top restaurant chains are making progress in reducing the use of antibiotics in the chicken they serve, but they are lagging when it comes to beef and pork — and there’s still a long way to go, according to an annual report released Tuesday by a coalition of environmental advocacy groups.

Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread once again were the only chains surveyed to earn an “A” grade for having comprehensive policies restricting the use of antibiotics in nearly all meat served in their restaurants, according to the Chain Reaction III report, produced by Consumers Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Friends of the Earth, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Center for Food Safety.

And while 14 of the 25 chains tracked have taken some action to end the use of medically important antibiotics in at least some of their chicken supplies, there has been much less progress made in other proteins.

This year, 11 restaurant chains earned an “F” grade, meaning they have not made any meaningful commitment with regard to the use of antibiotics and the meat they serve, the report said.

But some of those brands failed simply because they didn’t respond to the coalition’s survey, including Applebee’s, Domino’s Pizza, Olive Garden, Chilis, Buffalo Wild Wings, Little Caesars, Arby’s, IHOP and Cracker Barrel.

DineEquity Inc., parent to Applebee’s and IHOP, said it didn’t participate, but the company recognizes the importance of the responsible use of antibiotics in the supply chain.

“In fact, it is one important element of a much larger discussion at DineEquity around our supply chain and animal welfare,” said Amy Mason, DineEquity senior vice president of global communications and consumer insights. “In conjunction with leading external animal welfare experts, we are exploring positions on a variety of issues important to us, our guests and animal welfare organizations. This includes more robust policy development and transparent reporting of our progress.”

Similarly, Jessica Dinon, a spokeswoman for Olive Garden, said parent company Darden Restaurants Inc. met its commitment to phase out the use of antibiotics important to human medicine for growth promotion by the end of 2016 across all of its brands.

“Our commitment is consistent with the current Food and Drug Administration guidelines, and it reflects the input of many stakeholders,” she said.

Jenny Fouracre, director of public relations for Domino's, said the chain has announced it will serve chicken in the U.S. that is free of antibiotics that are important for human health, beginning in 2018. "You don’t hear about that, because we do not choose to use this fact as a marketing message," she said. " We only purchase beef, dairy, and pork products from suppliers that use only low-risk animals, as classified by the USDA; emphasize appropriate animal husbandry, hygiene and preventative practices; and emphasize limited therapeutic use of antibiotics."


She added that the coalition's grading system doesn't play a role in the company's decision-making process.

Arby's, meanwhile, also noted its “F” grade was simply a result of not responding to the coalition's questionnaire. "We comply with all applicable FDA guidelines, including those related to the use of antibiotics in our proteins, and we maintain a commitment to the highest food safety standards," said Matt Baker, manager of corporate communications for Arby's Restaurant Group Inc.

Dairy Queen and Sonic responded to the survey, but earned failing grades because they either had no policies about antibiotic use or didn’t meet the coalition’s criteria.

Sonic officials, for example, said the chain has had a policy since January 2017 on poultry, saying poultry suppliers should only use antimicrobial drugs for the prevention, control and treatment of disease, and prohibiting the use of medically important antibiotics to promote growth. But the coalition contends that such policies don't go far enough, saying restaurants should ask suppliers to eliminate antibiotic use altogether, except for the treatment of sick animals and in the event of a specific disease outbreak. 

Dairy Queen did not immediately respond to requests for comments.

The grades were based not only on restaurant policies, but also on the transparency of the chains’ practices and in achieving set goals within specific timelines. 

More points were earned for having policies that included all proteins, for example, or whether they used third-party audits to verify supplier compliance.

Still, the 14 chains that earned a passing grade of “D” or better this year indicated improvement; only five passed in 2015, and nine passed in 2016.

This year, Subway earned a “B+” as the only chain, after Chipotle and Panera, with a no-antibiotics policy across its entire meat and poultry supply. Subway achieved 100-percent sourcing of chicken raised without antibiotics earlier this year, and antibiotic-free turkey is on deck for 2019. The chain has pledged to eliminate use of antibiotics in beef and pork by 2025, the report said.


KFC was dubbed “most improved,” raising its grade from an “F” last year to a “B-” in the latest report. In March, KFC made a commitment to only purchase chicken raised without medically important antibiotics by the end of 2018.

The coalition produces the scorecard every year in an ongoing push to urge restaurant chains to eliminate the use of meat from animals that have been given antibiotics routinely to prevent disease and promote growth, a common practice on industrial farms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked the use of antibiotics in livestock with the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. An estimated 23,000 Americans die and at least 2 million are sickened by infections as a result of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. 

The Food and Drug Administration is phasing out the use of antibiotics in food and animals to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency. But the agency still allows the therapeutic use of such drugs in animals under the care of a veterinarian.

The coalition, meanwhile, hopes the restaurant industry will do its part to change farming practices from a market-demand standpoint.

“We must stop squandering antibiotics on animals that aren’t sick at a time when these vital medications are losing their ability to fight infections in people,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports. “Fast-food restaurants have tremendous market power and should use their leverage to help address this public health crisis by ending the misuse of antibiotics.”

The report credited restaurant chains for contributing to improvements across the poultry industry.

Nearly half of U.S. chicken is raised by suppliers who follow responsible antibiotic-use practices, or that have pledged to do so soon, the report said.

Cate Gillon/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Pork and beef standards lag behind

But while more than half of the top chains have made a commitment to reduce antibiotic use in chicken, most — 22 out of the 25 — have not adopted time-bound commitments for limiting the use of antibiotics in pork and beef, the report said. 

McDonald’s, which earned a “C+” grade overall, has outlined a global vision for reducing antibiotics in beef and pork, but didn’t give a timeline, the report said.

“Drug-resistant bacteria are killing thousands of Americans and sickening millions every year, so we need a big player to step up and address antibiotic use in pork and beef,” said Matthew Wellington, antibiotics program director for the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “McDonald’s has changed its chicken suppliers and recently put out a strong vision to address misuse in pork and beef. By turning this vision into a reality, McDonald’s can pressure the meat industry to cut the rampant misuse of life-saving antibiotics that fuels these superbugs.”

Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America supply chain, said next year the company will share its progress on reducing the use of antibiotics in beef. And its policies on chicken in the U.S. will apply to restaurants in global markets next year.


“Moving to cage-free eggs by 2025; sourcing chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine since 2015; and introducing McNuggets with no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives are all examples of our continued commitment to our U.S. customers,” Gross said in a statement. “Because we know we can and must do more across the globe, last month we also announced that in 2018 we will begin implementing a chicken antibiotics policy in markets around the world. And we remain committed to making meaningful reductions in the use of antibiotics in beef and pork, and will share our progress on beef in 2018.”

Meanwhile, Chipotle said its decision to serve meat raised in a way that emphasizes “care over the use of chemicals” will continue.

“We made that decision simply because we thought it was the right thing to do — the right thing for farmers, for animal welfare and for human health,” said Steve Ells, Chipotle’s founder, chairman and CEO, in a statement. “While we are pleased to see other restaurant companies following our lead on this issue, this report shows there is still more work to be done across the industry, and we hope that others will make this a priority in the same way that Chipotle has.”

The report also gave kudos to nine smaller restaurant chains that have taken a stand on the use of antibiotics in meat. Dickey's BBQ, for example, this year launched a "no B.S. (Bad Stuff)" initiative committing to no-antibiotic chicken across its 600-unit chain, saying it will also source antibiotic-free beef and pork as supply allows. Boston Market has also pledged to remove meat raised with antibiotics from its menu by 2018, and The Cheesecake Factory uses beef, pork and poultry raised without antibiotics, added hormones or growth-promoting drugs.

Nation's Restaurant News: More chains commit to antibiotic-free chicken: survey
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