The advent of drug-resistant superbugs has shone light on the perils of overusing antibiotics in American food products. Many of America’s major fast food companies, however, have yet to address this issue despite calls from food safety advocates to do so, a new report says.
The report, compiled by the coalition of consumer, health, and environmental groups, implicates more than 20 brands, including Subway, which they say failed to follow up its August pledge to cease antibiotics use with an action plan. The only companies to pass the assessment, titled Chain Reaction: How Top Restaurants Rate on Reducing Use of Antibiotics in Their Meat Supply, include Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts.
“From bacon cheeseburgers to chicken nuggets, most meat served by America’s chain restaurants comes from animals raised in industrial-scale facilities, where they are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent disease that is easily spread in crowded, unsanitary, stressful conditions,” Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager at environment-focused nonprofit Friends of the Earth, said in a press statement.
“It’s time for the U.S. restaurant industry to take leadership and address the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance by working with their meat and poultry suppliers to eliminate the routine use of antibiotics and improve overall conditions in U.S. meat production,” she added.
Food manufacturers use more than 30 million pounds of antibiotics annually to induce livestock growth and reduce the risk of infection for animals living in unsanitary conditions. In years past, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relied on voluntary guidelines to dictate use of antibiotics. Indiscriminate application by food producers, however, have made common bacteria like E.coli and salmonella stronger and more resistant to antibiotics currently on the market.
A British-commissioned review released late last year warned about the growing threat of drug-resistant superbugs, stressing that tackling the potential public health emergency required doctors, food producers, and other parties to curb use of antibiotics. The report followed a prediction by World Health Organization head Margaret Chan in 2012 that the weakening of antibiotics could mean “the end of modern medicine as we know it.” Improper antibiotic use kills 23,000 people annually and sickens nearly 2 million.
In March, the Obama administration released a 63-page action plan outlining its five-year strategy to study antibiotics use on farms, cease their use on farms and medical facilities, and require medical oversight of all uses of the antibiotics. Lawmakers included portions of the plan, including $10 million on-farm monitoring plan, in the fiscal year 2016 budget proposal. Months later, the White House announced the phasing out of antibiotic-fed produce in federal cafeterias. “This policy will build on the important work of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and antibiotic manufacturers, which are already taking substantial steps to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics in food animals,” a memo read.
However, such governmental overtures received little fanfare, with food safety groups criticizing what they described as the absence of metrics that would gauge industry groups’ success in phasing out antibiotics. They also said the FDA was too lenient in its approach.
Those sentiments, in part, have pushed a campaign to push food companies to change their policies. This week, more than 100 organizations signed a letter demanding that U.S. chain restaurant industry leaders publicly adopt a policy that prohibits the use of antibiotics in its meat and poultry products. Their appeal cited their efforts to challenge lawmakers on the subject and a 2012 survey that said a majority of consumers showed a willingness to pay more money for antibiotics-free food products.
“Yet this dangerous practice continues, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declare antibiotic resistance to be among the top five health threats facing our nation, and health experts including the World Health Organization, American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics warn that feeding low doses of antibiotics to healthy animals contributes to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” the letter read.