What You Don't Know Can Hurt You
The hidden cost of antibiotic drugs in fast food
The United States' food report card is in, and it's not good.
In the first comprehensive report of its kind, 80% of surveyed fast food and fast casual restaurants received an "F" for their sourcing practices and antibiotics usage.
Only 5 major chains received a "C" or above.
Cause for Concern
Since the 1950s, the practice of routinely feeding farm animals antibiotics has become standard, even ubiquitous.
Overdosage = Resistance
Resistance=Potential Disease Outbreak
It's a pretty straightforward equation.
"Simply using antibiotics creates resistance," reports the CDC. "These drugs should only be used to manage infections."
But large-scale food suppliers continue to use antibiotics to stimulate animal growth and to prevent diseases that arise from poor diets and living conditions.
% Medically-Important Antibiotics Sold to Livestock Sector: 70
Medically-Important Antibiotics Sales to Livestock Sector (2009-13): +20%
8 billion chickens
66 million pigs
89 million heads of cattle and other livestock
consumed 32.2 million pounds of antibiotics.
That's 8 times the amount sold for human use.
The consequences are clear.
Minimum Antibiotic Resistant Infections Per Year: 2,000,000
Economic Costs: $55,000,000,000
Antibiotic Resistant Deaths Per Year: 23,000
No one can claim ignorance.
1998: "The committee believes that important, although as yet sparse, data show the flow of distinct salmonella clones from farm animals medicated with antibiotics in sub-therapeutic concentrations, through food products, to humans, who thus acquire clinical salmonellosis." – Institute of Medicine
2003: "There is clear evidence of adverse human health consequences due to resistant organisms resulting from non-human usage of antimicrobials. These consequences include infections that would not have otherwise occurred, increased frequency of treatment failures (in some cases death) and increased severity of infections." – World Health Organization, FDA, and World Animal Health Organization
2008: "A link can be demonstrated between the use of antibiotics in food animals, the development of resistant microorganisms in those animals, and the zoonotic spread of pathogens to humans." – National Research Council
2010: "There is strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans." – Director of CDC, before Congress
2012: "In regard to antimicrobial drug use in animals, the Agency considers the most significant risk to the public health associated with antimicrobial resistance to be human exposure to food containing antimicrobial-resistant bacteria resulting from the exposure of food-producing animals to antimicrobials." – FDA
2013: "Up to half of antibiotic use in humans and much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe." – CDC
2014: "A post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy – is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century." – World Health Organization
CDC's Top 5 Global Health Threats in 2014:
1) The emergence and spread of new microbes
2) The globalization of travel and food supplies
3) The rise of antibiotic-resistant infections
4) Inadvertent or intentional release of pathogens
So, who's acted?
The first annual "Chain Reaction" report card gives us some answers.
Friends of the Earth
Natural Resources Defense Council
Keep Antibiotics Working
Center for Food Safety
Food Animal Concerns Trust
1) Does company have antibiotics policy?
Score = quality of policy + number of meats policy applies to
2) What is company's implementation strategy?
Score = estimated availability of meat produced w/o antibiotics routine
3) How transparent is company's policy?
Score = third party audits + online policy + survey response
Top 25 Fast Food and Fast Casual Restaurants in U.S.
Company Total Points Possible % Grade
Chipotle 33 34 97.00% A
Panera 35 36 97.00% A
Chick-fil-A 25 32 78.00% B
Dunkin Donuts 24 36 67.00% C
McDonald's 20 34 59.00% C
Subway 11 36 31.00% F
Wendy's 9 36 25.00% F
Burger King 3 34 9.00% F
Denny's 3 36 8.00% F
Domino's 3 34 9.00% F
Starbuck's 1 36 3.00% F
[all below received 0/36 points and a F; did not respond to survey and no data publicly available]
Jack in the Box
Only 5 surveyed companies have publicly available policies that outline antibiotic limitations.
16 surveyed companies fail to provide any basic information regarding antibiotics in their food.
Two-thirds of surveyed companies refused to provide any written response.
Only 2 surveyed companies report offering "an array of meat options produced without the routine use of antibiotics."
Only 3 surveyed companies have made public commitments to third-party audits.
100% of surveyed companies currently acknowledge use of – or are assumed to use antibiotic-fed animals, to varying percentages.
The Changing Market
Fortunately, public awareness is shifting power back to the consumer.
% Grocery shoppers aware of antibiotics use: 88
% Concerned about antibiotics use: 60
% Consumers believe that antibiotic-free meat should be available at local supermarket: 86
% Consumers willing to pay at least $.05/lb more for it: 60
% Consumers willing to pay at least $1/lb more for it: 40
Unfortunately, the market is still catching up.
% Cost increase for producing antibiotic-free chickens: +10-15
Supermarket prices: $2/lb more
Supermarket rates: can be 2 times as expensive
Still, the industry is growing.
% Sale increase of antibiotic-free meat 2009-12: +25
% Leading brands with certified organic and grass-fed product labels grew 2012-14: +80
There is some good news and chicken is leading the way.
Top Chicken Producers
#1) Tyson Foods – $34.7 billion in revenue, 2013
Will eliminate the use of human antibiotics for raising chickens in its U.S. operations by September 2017.
#2) Pilgrim's Corp. – $9 billion in revenue, 2013
Will raise 25% of its birds without drugs by 2018
#3) Perdue Farms – $6 billion in revenue, 2014
More than 50% of its birds are currently raised without antibiotics.
The results are in, and the word is out. Consumers are worried about antibiotics in their food – and rightly so. The market is beginning to respond, but much more action is needed still. With more than half of Americans' food expenses coming from outside the grocery store, restaurant chains have a large influence over the meat we eat. Let's hope they recognize that responsibility.