Progress in 2015 and hope for the new year

This was a big year for the fight to save antibiotics. Now we’re looking to the future and looking forward to continuing our efforts to stop the overuse of antibiotics in factory farming.

Food & farming

Anya Vanecek

In May, I wrote that “2015 has been a big year for chicken.” Little did I know it would only get bigger. Several huge restaurant chains jumped in to help stop the overuse of antibiotics factory farms this past year, and it was no accident.

We kicked off the new year with our first marketplace-focused antibiotics campaign, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of consumers to join our call for major restaurants to switch to serve meat raised without routine antibiotics. Restaurants noticed.

Only a couple months into our campaign, McDonald’s made an important decision to phase out the use of human antibiotics from its chicken. That was huge. Only days later, major retailer Costco announced it would work to stop selling meat from any animals raised with human antibiotics. Within weeks, a major supplier of chicken to McDonald’s, Tyson Foods, committed to stop using human antibiotics on their chicken. Perdue trumpeted its existing commitment to raising birds without antibiotics, and Pilgrim’s Pride made a smaller, though not insignificant, commitment.

What is clear is that we helped tip over one third of America’s chicken into the ‘raised-without-routine-antibiotics’ market, and that was only the beginning. With the public demand for more responsible meat-raising practices growing, our message was becoming a compelling discussion within corporate boardrooms.

Noodles & Company added their name to the roster of restaurants helping stop antibiotics overuse. Already serving pork raised without antibiotics, and having tested chicken in Colorado earlier in the year, the noodle chain announced that it would work to phase out the use of antibiotics from its entire meat supply by 2017.  Not to waste a PR opportunity, numerous other chains, such as Panera and Chipotle, rallied around the end of the summer to remind customers about the raised-without-antibiotics options on their menus.

With these major chains and hundreds of thousands of consumers on board, we continued to urge the restaurant chain with more locations than any other in America: Subway. We sent out canvassers and field staff, worked with similar organizations and the media, organized tens of thousands of health care professionals, and made quite a racket online, all to convince the “eat fresh” franchise that a move to meat raised without routine antibiotics was good for consumers and their business. It worked.

Six months into our determined campaign, Subway set one of the strongest commitments to meat raised without antibiotics to date. As a result, we’ll see more major meat producers wean their operations off of antibiotics over the next few years: chicken, turkey, beef, and pork.

We couldn’t celebrate long. Shortly after Subway’s announcement, news of a new antibiotic-resistant strain of E. Coli came in from China, then Denmark. And reports of a particularly virulent strain of resistant CRE bacteria – nicknamed “the phantom menace bacteria” – spread across the nation.

These developments strengthened our drive for change. Experts, officials, and advocates have known for decades that routine, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on meat-producing animals is dangerous. Yet, it continues. The recent FDA annual report suggests it’s accelerating. As resistance rises with it, the practice is more blatantly irresponsible than ever, and must end.

That’s why the progress we made in the marketplace is so critically important. It shows that the public is not going to stand by and watch as powerful special interests willfully ignore a major public health crisis. McDonald’s, Subway, and the others are now, or soon will be, pushing the market in the right direction, but they aren’t enough. To put an end to one of the major contributors to the rise of antibiotic resistance, we’ll need many more restaurant chains to follow.

At U.S. PIRG, we’re committed to that fight: call it a New Year’s Resolution. But we can’t do it alone.

Up next, we’re asking many more chains to join the ranks of fast food chains committed to help save antibiotics. We hope that KFC will be one of the first; we’re certainly urging them to take action. Will you join us?


Anya Vanecek