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Market News

 September 21, 2016
Burger King and KFC called out for lagging behind on antibiotic-free meat

 A report released Tuesday that grades the policies of big chain restaurants shows that many well known brands, including Burger King and KFC, flunk out when it comes to their policies on eliminating antibiotics in the meat and poultry they serve.

The second annual report, compiled by a group of environmental, consumer and health organizations, including the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), graded the 25 largest fast food and restaurant chains in the US on their policies to phase out antibiotic use in their beef, pork, chicken and turkey products. The scorecard graded the companies after surveying them directly and examining company websites and annual reports.

Nine of the companies surveyed earned passing grades -- twice as many as last year. Yet the majority of companies are still lagging in their commitment to going antibiotic-free, with 16 chains, including Olive Garden and Dunkin' Donuts, receiving Fs.

"Top restaurant chains, some of the largest buyers of meat, are now on notice that their customers and investors care about this issue and will hold them accountable for antibiotics use policies and practices in their meat supply chains," said Sasha Stashwick, a senior food and agriculture advocate at NRDC.

"Companies like chicken giant KFC that continue to ignore this issue or fail to take meaningful action increasingly stand out as real industry laggards."

The report put a spotlight on a significant public health issue a day before the United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to meet to discuss antibiotic resistance. Drug-resistant bacteria currently kills around 700,000 people worldwide each year; that number could grow to 10 million by 2050 if efforts to combat antibiotic resistance fail, according to a report commissioned by the UK government. A major cause of antibiotic resistance is the careless use of these drugs in treating non-bacterial infections in humans and in preventing diseases and promoting growth in animals.

As much as 70% of antibiotics developed to treat humans are sold for use in feed and water for livestock. This number will likely drop in 2017, however, when it will become illegal in the US for microbial drugs to be used to stimulate growth, and veterinary supervision will be required for any other purposes.

Fast food chains are facing increased pressure from consumers and health groups to phase out the routine use of antibiotics. A number of chains, including Subway, McDonald's and In-N-Out Burger, have recently tightened their policies to restrict antibiotic use. The restaurant industry recognizes the threat that antibiotic overuse poses to human health, said Christin Fernandez, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association.

"The health and welfare of our consumers and our supply chain is the top priority for the restaurant industry," said Fernandez. "We work with our industry and supply chain partners to promote the responsible and judicious use of antibiotics across the entire animal agriculture food chain."

The grades in the report scorecard are given based on whether a restaurant has a comprehensive and publicly available policy and how well it's carried out.

In this year's scorecard, Subway showed the biggest improvement, jumping from an F last year to a B in 2016. In March, the sandwich giant started serving antibiotic-free chicken in stores across the country. The move came after Subway announced last year that it would eliminate antibiotics from all its meat and poultry products by 2025.

Subway joins Panera and Chipotle Mexican Grill -- the only two companies that received an A -- as the only restaurant chains to adopt antibiotics policies that apply to all types of meat that they serve, according to the report.

McDonald's improved its grade from C to a C-plus this year after it reported in August this year that all of the chicken at its roughly 14,000 restaurants across the country was now antibiotic-free.

Most of the companies that saw improved grades this year did so because of their commitments to end antibiotics use in their chicken supply, said Stashwick.

"The progress on chicken has been remarkable -- this has really been the year of the chicken," said Stashwick. " The NRDC now estimates that roughly 40% of the US chicken industry has eliminated or pledged to eliminate routine use of medically-important antibiotics."

However, "very little progress" has been made on pork and beef across the board, according to the report.

"The largest chicken producers are reducing their reliance on antibiotics, including Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods, Foster Farms and Pilgrim's Pride," said Stashwick. "These are not niche players; these are the largest chicken companies in the country."

Dunkin' Donuts was the only company to be downgraded to an F from a C in 2015. Last year's scorecard lauded the company for its policy prohibiting the use of human antibiotics for all its meat suppliers. However, the doughnut chain made changes to the policy that appeared to backtrack on its promises, claims the latest report.

"The updated policy language was confusing and regressive, stating that, 'Suppliers should only administer antibiotics and antimicrobials to animals for the control and treatment of disease'," said the new report. "The use of the word 'should' indicates that this is not a requirement and that the policy now clearly allows for the continued use of antibiotics for disease prevention -- exactly what we are asking companies to curb."

While Dunkin' Donuts didn't address the wording change in its policy, it said in a statement that it intends to follow a guideline from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) recommending the use of antibiotics only for treating diseases, under the supervision of a veterinarian.

"Our animal welfare policy prohibits suppliers from using antibiotics in healthy animals. Suppliers should only administer antibiotics and antimicrobials to animals for the control and treatment of disease," said Christine Riley Miller, senior director of corporate social responsibility of Dunkin' Brands, in a statement.

Some of the largest food chains, including KFC and Olive Garden, have taken "no action" to reduce the use of antimicrobial drugs in their supply chains, the report said. In August, the NRDC and other advocacy groups delivered a petition to KFC, signed by 350,000 consumers, demanding the company commit to a strong policy to eliminate medically important antibiotics from its fried chicken.

On its website, KFC says it will follow the same FDA guidance on using antibiotics for treating illnesses only by 2017.

Besides KFC, Olive Garden and Dunkin Donuts, other companies that received an F this year were: Applebee's, Arby's, Buffalo Wild Wings, Burger King, Chili's, Dairy Queen, Denny's, Domino's, Ihop, Jack in the Box, Little Caesars, Sonic and Starbucks.