Chain Reaction report urges burger restaurants to beef up policies to eliminate routine use of antibiotics

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Matt Wellington

Former Director, Public Health Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

22 of the 25 largest burger chains get an “F” for failing to source beef raised without routine antibiotics

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Two growing burger chains, Shake Shack and BurgerFi, stand out from the herd when it comes to serving beef raised without the routine use of antibiotics in the burger industry. They were the only restaurants to earn an “A” on the fourth annual Chain Reaction scorecard released today by six major consumer and environmental organizations. The vast majority of hamburger chains — 22 of the top 25, including giants such as McDonald’s — got an “F” grade because they lack established policies restricting antibiotic use in their beef supply chains.

The fourth annual Chain Reaction scorecard grades the nation’s 25 largest hamburger chain restaurants on their antibiotics policies and practices. It spotlights the lack of progress in the beef industry, the largest buyer of medically-important antibiotics among food animal sectors, in addressing antibiotic overuse. Public health experts warn that the widespread use of antibiotics for meat production is rendering these medications less effective by contributing to the creation and spread of drug-resistant bacteria, sometimes known as superbugs.

“There’s nothing more American than a hamburger. But for the sake of our health, we need influential restaurants such as McDonald’s to take a bite out of antibiotic overuse in the beef industry,” said Matt Wellington, U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Antibiotics Program Director. “Restaurants need to demand antibiotic restrictions from their beef suppliers. We simply cannot afford to lose life-saving medicines to produce a slightly cheaper burger.”

The burger edition of this fourth annual report was produced by U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Center for Food Safety, Consumer Reports, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Friends of the Earth and Natural Resources Defense Council. Among its key findings:  

  • Failing grades for most chains: Twenty-two burger chains received an “F” grade because they lack meaningful policies to govern antibiotic use in their beef supply chains.

  • A new generation leads the way: BurgerFi and Shake Shack received the only two “A” grades in the burger scorecard. Both companies currently serve only beef raised without antibiotics.

  • A baby step by a big company: Wendy’s received a “D-” because it buys 15 percent of its beef supply from producers that have reduced the use of one medically important antibiotic, tylosin, by 20 percent. The policy represents progress, yet is far from comprehensive.

  • Don’t just take their word for it: Shake Shack and Wendy’s, two of the three burger chains with passing grades, got points for using suppliers who have a third party verify their antibiotic use.

  • Intention without follow-through: McDonald’s, the largest beef purchaser in the United States, has announced a vision for antibiotic stewardship for its meat supply chain, but hasn’t committed to a timeline to implement it beyond chicken. In-N-Out Burger also has publicly pledged to source meat raised without routine antibiotics but it hasn’t committed to a timeline either.

“People want better burgers and the companies taking note are seeing better business,” said Lena Brook, Acting Director of Food and Agriculture at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “With more of these miracle drugs going to cows than to people, the beef industry has a responsibility — and an opportunity — to help keep them working when sick people and animals need them. Most fast food restaurants are putting burger lovers in a bind. If they want responsibly raised meat, right now, chicken is the best choice at many mainstream chains.”

Approximately 70 percent of the medically-important antibiotics sold in the United States go to food-producing animals. Of medically important antibiotics sales to the livestock sector, 43 percent of the drugs go to the beef industry, more than any other meat sector. Farmers often give these antibiotics to healthy cattle to compensate for stressful, crowded and unsanitary conditions on the industrial feedlots where nearly all cattle spend a portion of their lives. 

“Cattle are adapted to graze on pasture. We could eliminate most of the antibiotic use in the cattle sector by keeping cattle on pasture longer and making sure they get enough hay at the feedlot,” said Steven Roach, Food Safety Program Director for Food Animal Concerns Trust. “Antibiotics could then be reserved for treating the much fewer sick cattle and not misused to prevent problems caused by how cattle are raised.”

Overuse of antibiotics on livestock hastens the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and increases the risk of drug-resistant infections in people. Each year, more than 2 million Americans suffer antibiotic-resistant infections and at least 23,000 die. According to both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistant bacteria are among the top threats to global public health.

“When antibiotics stop working, diseases become harder to treat, life-saving surgeries riskier to perform, and a scrape on the knee can even turn deadly,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives in the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “Consumers are concerned about antibiotics losing their effectiveness and want meat producers to adopt more responsible practices.”

A 2018 Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 1,014 adults found that 78 percent of respondents agreed that meat producers should stop giving antibiotics to animals that aren’t sick. Fifty-nine percent said they would be more likely to eat at a restaurant that serves meat raised without antibiotics.

“In the absence of federal policy, companies must take action to address their contributions to this crisis,” said Kari Hamerschlag, Deputy Director, Food and Agriculture, Friends of the Earth. With so many antibiotics going to cattle, we urge the U.S. beef industry to follow the lead of the chicken industry and take decisive action on this issue. High-profile restaurants, like In-N-Out Burger and McDonald’s, must make good on their stated commitments to eliminate or significantly curtail the regular use of these drugs in their supply chain.”

“Restaurant policies helped move the chicken industry beyond the federal requirements for antibiotics in food animals, but lack of meaningful action by the beef industry underscores the need for regulations to move the needle forward,” says Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director at Center for Food Safety. “If the industry is able to keep dragging its feet, the antibiotics crisis will only worsen.”


Center for Food Safety’s mission is to empower people, support farmers, and protect the earth from the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture. Through groundbreaking legal, scientific, and grassroots action, we protect and promote your right to safe food and the environment. Please join our more than 900,000 advocates across the country at Twitter: @CFSTrueFood, @CFS_Press

Consumer Reports is a nonprofit membership organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. For 80 years, CR has provided evidence-based product testing and ratings, rigorous research, hard-hitting investigative journalism, public education, and steadfast policy action on behalf of consumers’ interests. Unconstrained by advertising or other commercial influences, CR has exposed landmark public health and safety issues and strives to be a catalyst for pro-consumer changes in the marketplace.

Food Animal Concerns Trust expands safe and humanely raised food options by supporting humane farmers and advocating against antibiotic overuse and harmful drugs in farm animals. Our Humane Farming Program invests in family farmers seeking to raise their animals humanely by providing them with grants, scholarships, and webinars. Our Food Safety Program advocates for stronger corporate and federal policies that eliminate the overuse of antibiotics and veterinary drugs known to be harmful to consumers. Together they expand safe and humane practices on farms across the country.

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