Which Fast Food Restaurants Pass (or Fail) the Antibiotics Test?

by | Updated: January 12th, 2018 | Read time: 4 minutes

Billions of pounds of beef, pork, chicken and turkey are served every year at American fast-food restaurants (think Burger King and McDonald’s) and fast-casual restaurants (think Panera and Olive Garden). And in a lot of cases, the meat and poultry products that appear on their menus come from animals that have been raised with antibiotics.

French Fries and Burger with Antibiotics in Meat From Fast Food Chain | Vitacost.com/blog

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) data shows that among all antibiotics sold in the U.S. for use by humans and food-producing animals, 70 percent go toward livestock. This situation is problematic, some scientists say, because there’s evidence of a connection between use of antibiotics for food-producing animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, says that while wise use of antibiotics by humans is being encouraged, “little progress has been made to reduce the use of antibiotics on farms, where most of these drugs are administered.” For its part, the North American Meat Institute maintains the USDA’s statistics about antibiotics have been distorted and insists the key problem with antibiotics is their overuse by humans, not their use for animals.

Whatever the reality, many consumers, health organizations and consumer advocacy groups remain concerned about the presence of antibiotics in livestock and poultry, and worry about the beef, pork, chicken and turkey they consume at fast-food and fast-casual restaurants. That’s why six groups, including the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union and the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently published a scorecard grading the country’s 25 biggest fast-food and fast-casual restaurants on their antibiotics policies.

A meaty matter

The upshot: 14 of the top 25 restaurant chains “have taken at least some steps to limit use of antibiotics in all or some of their supply chains,” the scorecard says.

“It is important to note, however, that while
remarkable progress has been made to reduce or
even eliminate use of medically important antibiotics, this progress has largely occurred in chicken
production,” the scorecard adds.

The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that close to half of the chicken producers in the U.S. either are raising birds with responsible antibiotics practices or have pledged to do so within the next few years.

However, according to the scorecard, production of beef, pork and turkey is lacking in that department.

Still, more restaurants received passing grades (14) on the scorecard than failing grades (11). What follows is the report card for all 25 restaurants.

  • Chipotle, Panera — A
  • Subway — B+
  • Chick-fil-A — B
  • KFC, Taco Bell — B-
  • McDonald’s — C+
  • Wendy’s — C
  • Pizza Hut, Starbucks — D+
  • Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, Jack in the Box, Papa John’s — D
  • Applebee’s, Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chili’s, Cracker Barrel, Dairy Queen, Domino’s, IHOP, Little Caesars, Olive Garden, Sonic — F

‘The right thing to do’

Chipotle launched its campaign against antibiotics in 1999. Today, all of its meat comes from animals raised without the routine use of antibiotics.

“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,” says Steve Ells, founder, chairman and CEO of Chipotle. “While we are pleased to see other restaurant companies following our lead on this issue, this [scorecard] 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.”

In its 2015-16 responsibility report, Panera says it started serving chicken without antibiotics in 2004. That restriction since has been extended to other products, with Panera’s animal offerings now being predominantly antibiotic-free.

“For years, we have been working to eliminate the use of antibiotics, and we continue to advocate that animals should be raised humanely and without unnecessary confinement,” the Panera report says.

The scorecard also commends Subway for, aside from Chipotle and Panera, being the only restaurant chain with a no-antibiotics policy across its entire meat and poultry supply chain.

KFC improved the most in the 2017 scorecard, rising to a B- this year from an F last year. This May, KFC said it’s phasing out chicken raised with antibiotics at its U.S. locations by the end of 2018.

“KFC’s new policy will be a game changer for the fast-food industry and public health,” Lena Brook, food policy advocate at the National Resources Defense Council, said in May. “While federal antibiotics policy stagnates, the market is responding to consumer demand for better meat.”

Room for improvement

The scorecard condemns the 11 restaurant chains that posted failing grades, saying they’ve “taken no discernable action to reduce use of antibiotics in their supply chains.”

“Companies are on notice that their customers and shareholders will hold them accountable for antibiotic use practices in their meat and poultry supply chains,” the scorecard warns. “Nonetheless, much swifter and more widespread action is needed from top restaurant chains and leading meat producers to end routine antibiotic use in our meat supply.”

The scorecard also criticizes government agencies for their “woefully inadequate” response to what it deems a “major public health threat.”

Consumers Union points out that groups such as the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, Infectious Disease Society of America and World Health Organization have encouraged considerable decreases in the use of antibiotics for production of animal foods. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says at least 23,000 Americans die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. 

“Humans are at risk both due to potential presence of superbugs in meat and poultry, and to the general migration of superbugs into the environment, where they can transmit their genetic immunity to antibiotics to other bacteria, including bacteria that make people sick,” Consumers Union says.