Chain Reaction IV: Burger Edition

How Top Restaurants Rate On Reducing Antibiotic Use In Their Meat Supply Chains

A report by Consumer Reports, Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety, Food Animal Concerns Trust, and U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Matthew Wellington U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Laura Deehan CALPIRG Education Fund
Emily Scarr Maryland PIRG Foundation
Abe Scarr Illinois PIRG Education Fund
Deirdre Cummings MASSPIRG Education Fund
Ashley Veihl NMPIRG Education Fund
Charlie Fisher OSPIRG Foundation
Bay Scoggin TexPIRG Education Fund
Elise Orlick WashPIRG Foundation
Peter Skopec WISPIRG Foundation

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The Chain Reaction IV report and scorecard ranks America’s 25 largest burger chains on their policies relating to antibiotic use in their beef supply chains. The overuse of antibiotics on industrial farms contributes to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can cause life-threatening infections in people. We need our life-saving medicines to work, and because fast food companies are some of the largest buyers of meat, they are uniquely positioned to address this public health crisis.


The growth and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a global health crisis, threatening to create a future in which common infections could once again become life-threatening on a large scale. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consider antibiotic-resistant bacteria among the top threats to global public health, and the CDC estimates that each year, at least 23,000 Americans die from resistant infections.[1]

The overuse of antibiotics in livestock production significantly contributes to the spread of antibiotic resistance.[2] The more antibiotics are used, the more bacteria become immune to them. More than 70 percent of the medically-important antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to food animals.[3],[4] Many meat producers routinely give the drugs to animals that are not sick either to promote faster growth or to prevent disease caused by factory farm production practices.[5] Despite the threat posed to public health, the U.S. lacks effective laws and policies to prevent the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture.

Fast food restaurants, as some of America’s largest meat buyers, can play an instrumental role in pushing meat producers to use antibiotics responsibly. In fact, previous editions of Chain Reaction have documented how the nation’s top restaurant chains have stepped up their commitments to source chicken from producers that raise animals without the routine use of antibiotics.[6] These corporate actions have helped move the chicken industry toward more responsible antibiotic use practices.

Consumers continue to want restaurants to serve meat raised without the routine use of antibiotics. For instance, in a nationally representative 2018 survey of 1,014 adults conducted by Consumer Reports, 59 percent of those polled indicated that they’d be more likely to eat at a restaurant that served meat raised without antibiotics — and more than half agreed that restaurants should stop serving meat and poultry raised with antibiotics.[7]

Although there is some progress in the chicken industry in response to such consumer demand, many fast food restaurants have failed to make meaningful commitments to address antibiotic overuse in their beef supply chains. This is concerning because in 2016, the beef sector accounted for 43 percent of the medically-important antibiotics sold to the meat industry — more than any other meat category.[8] By contrast, six percent of medically-important antibiotics sales went to the chicken industry.

Burger chains can have a significant impact on antibiotic use in the beef industry

This year’s Chain Reaction report and scorecard therefore focuses on antibiotic use policies and practices for beef sold in the top 25 U.S. burger chains. Though not our primary focus, Chain Reaction authors also surveyed and reported on progress related to antibiotic use across all meat and poultry supply chains of the nation’s top 25 fast food and fast casual restaurants (some companies overlap between the two scorecards).

Burger chains have a crucial role to play in reducing antibiotic use. McDonald’s, for example, is the single largest purchaser of beef in the United States.[9] To protect public health and push the beef industry to eliminate the overuse of antibiotics, restaurants — especially burger chains — should commit to sourcing beef from producers that use antibiotics under the guidance of a licensed veterinarian, and only to treat animals diagnosed with an illness or in limited circumstances to control a verified disease outbreak. So far, however, few have done so.

Our survey shows that only two chains, Shake Shack and BurgerFi, source beef raised without the routine use of antibiotics. Most other chains have no public antibiotic use policy.

Policymakers should act to protect public health

While restaurants and major meat producers have critical roles to play in stopping the overuse of antibiotics, the government must also act to achieve the kind of lasting, industry-wide change needed to fully protect public health.

Policymakers should only allow beef producers to use medically-important antibiotics under the guidance of a licensed veterinarian, and to treat animals diagnosed with an illness or to control a verified disease outbreak. Policymakers should also set national goals for reduction of antibiotic use in food animals, and dramatically improve collection and disclosure of antibiotic use data. Comprehensive policy reforms will ensure that all meat producers across the U.S. meet the same responsible antibiotic use standards. These reforms are vital to preserving life-saving medicines for the future health of both animals and people.

TAKE ACTION
Ask McDonald's To Hold The Antibiotics

The more consumer demand for change there is, the faster McDonald’s will act, and the stronger their commitment will be. You can help by taking action today. Sign our petition calling on the CEO of McDonald’s to commit to phasing routine antibiotic use out of their entire meat supply chain.

FOOTNOTES
[1] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC from here on), Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013, https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/threat-report-2013/pdf/ar-threats-2013-508.pdf.
[2] World Health Organization, World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines on Use of Medically Important Antimicrobials in Food-producing Animals, 17January 2018, https://aricjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13756-017-0294-9; CDC, Antibiotic Resistance from the Farm to the Table (infographic), 2013, https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/pdfs/ar-infographic-508c.pdf.
[3] U.S. Food and Drug Administration (hereinafter FDA), Center for Veterinary Medicine, 2016 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals, December 2017, https://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/NewsEvents/CVMUpdates/ucm588086.htm. Data on 2015 sales of antibiotics for human medicine in the United States were obtained from Eili Klein of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CCDEP). Klein also provided data for years prior to 2015 in Kar, A., and Klein, E. “Animal Antibiotic Sales Finally Drop, but Much Work Remains,” Natural Resources Defense Council (hereinafter NRDC), December 2017, https://www.nrdc.org/experts/avinash-kar/animal-antibiotic-sales-finally-drop-much-work-remains. CDDEP also provided those figures for years preceding 2015; 2016 data are not yet available.
[4] “Medically-important antibiotics” or “antibiotics important to human medicine” refers to antibiotics that are the same as, or similar to, classes of drugs used in human medicine. For example, the antibiotic tylosin, used in livestock, is a member of the medically-important macrolide class of antibiotics. Throughout this report, we will use the term “antibiotics” and “medically-important” antibiotics interchangeably, unless otherwise noted.
[5] Timothy F. Landers et al. “A Review of Antibiotic Use in Food Animals: Perspective, Policy, and Potential,” U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health ,127(1): 4–22, Jan-Feb 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3234384/; “prevent disease caused by factory farm production practices” refers to routine antibiotic use ostensibly to prevent disease in healthy animals, rather than safer, non-antibiotic animal management alternatives.
[6] Antibiotics Off the Menu, Scorecards, accessed at https://www.antibioticsoffthemenu.org/score-cards/, 30 September 2018; Here and throughout, “meat raised without the routine use of antibiotics” refers both to meat raised entirely without antibiotics and meat raised without routine uses of antibiotics on animals that are not sick. Report authors support the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals. 
[7]  Consumer Reports, Natural and Antibiotics Labels Survey Report, 1 May 2018. https://consumersunion.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/2018-Natural-and-Antibiotics-Labels-Survey-Public-Report.pdf.
[8] FDA, Center for Veterinary Medicine, 2016 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals, December 2017, https://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/NewsEvents/CVMUpdates/ucm588086.htm. [9] Samantha Bomkamp, “McDonald’s vows to serve more antibiotic-free meat, targeting beef and pork,” Los Angeles Times, 23 August 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-mcdonalds-antibiotics-0824-biz-20170823-story.html.