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Fast Food Restaurants: Who Serves Antibiotic Free Meat?

I recently wrote about the shockingly high use of antibiotics in raising meat producing animals and how it is contributing to the global crisis of antibiotics resistance.  The post concluded with recommendations for how we, as consumers, can reduce the demand for meat raised with antibiotics.  One suggestion was to choose to eat at restaurants that use meat raised without antibiotics.  This post examines the top fast food restaurants policies toward purchasing meat raised without antibiotics.

Fast Food Restaurants

Three different sources were used for compiling the list of fast food restaurants to investigate.  The list contains the top 20 largest fast food restaurant chains in the United States and the top 10 global chains, of which there is significant overlap.1,2  Additionally,  “healthier” options are also included based on Health Magazine’s America’s Healthiest Fast Food Restaurants.The restaurants selected include:

fast food restaurants antibiotics policies evaluated

Source of Antibiotic Policy Information

Information used to categories a fast food restaurant’s antibiotic use policy was obtained from each company’s website or a corporate press release.  When neither of these were available, other reputable sources of information (e.g. well known news outlets) were sighted.  If none of these sources reveled a company’s stance on using meat raised with antibiotics, they were categorized as having “no antibiotics policy”.4-29

Evaluation applies to chicken only, unless otherwise noted

Except for rare exceptions (noted below), the majority of antibiotic policies by fast food companies apply ONLY to chicken. This means that if you are ordering a burger or turkey sandwich, the meat in those items is still likely raised with antibiotics. Why do the antibiotic policies only apply to chicken? It is easier to implement a policy on chicken, and so restaurants are starting with chicken. Chickens have shorter life cycles than larger animals, and therefore there are fewer opportunities for diseases to develop and spread. Also, unlike other meat producers, chicken producers have near complete control of the chicken production supply chain (eggs, feed, and medicines), and so changes are easier to implement.30

Categories of Antibiotic Use

The fast food restaurants evaluated had a wide range of policies regarding antibiotic use in meat. Some restaurants were very progressive not only in their policies but also in implementing them promptly (which is often not simple due to complex supply chains). Other restaurants had no policy what-so-ever. The categories used are as follows:

No policy on antibiotic use

Restaurants with no public position on the use of antibiotics in the food producing animals where their meat is sourced were categorized as having “no policy.”  Also included in this category were companies that stated only that they followed all applicable FDA guidelines. This is because FDA guidelines allow for the routine use of antibiotics in raising food producing animals.

No medically important antibiotics

More than half of the antibiotics given to animals are the same or similar to those used in human medicine. These antibiotics are considered medically important and sometimes called human antibiotics. Fast Food restaurants in this category source meat that was raised without medically important antibiotics. However, this does not mean that the animals were raised without antibiotics. Animals raised without medically important antibiotics can still be given antibiotics approved solely for animals to prevent disease, and this usage is known to also contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Only therapeutic use of antibiotics

Therapeutic use of antibiotics is when an animal has an illness or is in imminent risk of becoming sick. This is the only appropriate time to use antibiotics in meat producing animals, according to the WHO.31 Fast food restaurants in this category source meat from animals that were given antibiotics only if needed to treat an illness.

No antibiotics ever

This is the easiest category to understand.  Food producing animals that were never given antibiotics (whether they were sick or not) fall into this category.  Fast food restaurants in this category serve meat from animals that never came in contact with antibiotics.  In some cases, the meat is organic, which has multiple requirements, of which one is that the animals are never administered antibiotics.

Results of Evaluation

The following chart shows the current state of antibiotic usage in chicken at top fast food restaurants.  Note: these policies are for chicken only unless other animals are indicated under the corporate logo. Also, if a date is listed under the logo, that indicates when the antibiotic policy will go into effect.

Top fast food restaurants antibiotic use policies regarding chicken
Top fast food restaurants antibiotic use policies regarding chicken

Although many top fast food restaurants have antibiotic use policies, many of the policies do not go into effect for a few years. Below is a chart outlining the major fast food restaurants who currently sell chicken (and other meat if Panera and Chipotle) with reduced or eliminated antibiotics.

Current top fast food restaurants antibiotic use policies regarding chicken
Current top fast food restaurants antibiotic use policies regarding chicken

A few fast food chains with particularly forward thinking antibiotic policies:

Panera Bread

Panera has a policy of “no antibiotics in chicken, ham, breakfast sausage, or roast turkey.”19 Of all of the restaurants evaluated, Panera is the only place you can currently get a ham or turkey sandwich using meat that was raised without antibiotics. Also worth noting is that food from Panera does not contain any artificial preservatives, artificial colors, or artificial flavors.

Subway

Though Subway’s policy of “no antibiotics” currently only applies to chicken, they are working to extend the policy to all other sources of protein on their menu.26 Turkey raised without antibiotics will be available in 2019, with beef and pork following along in 2025. Yes, this is a long time away. However, it is an important commitment that they have made and are working towards.

Chipotle

Chipotle has a policy of “only therapeutic use” of antibiotics in any of the meat they serve.8 While this is not the same as “no antibiotics ever,” this is still considered a responsible approach to the use of antibiotics in raising food producing animals. If you are wanting a fast food taco or burrito from a company with a conscientious antibiotic policy, Chipotle is pretty much the only option for the time being.

Conclusion

It is encouraging that so many fast food companies are working to source chicken raised without antibiotics, or at least with reduced levels of antibiotics. However, chicken is just the first step as most restaurants still source meat from cows, pigs, and turkeys that are routinely fed antibiotics. Hopefully other fast food chains will follow the lead of Panera and Subway and remove antibiotics from all the food they serve.

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References:

  1. The 20 Most Successful Fast Food Chains Right Now, Business Insider, 2017 (link)
  2. Top 10 Global Fast Food Brands, Forbes (link)
  3. America’s Healthiest Fast Food Restaurants, Health (link)
  4. Arby’s Website (link)
  5. Burger King, Reuters Website (link)
  6. Carl’s Jr / Hardees Press Release (link)
  7. Chick-fil-A Website (link)
  8. Chipotle Website (link)
  9. Dairy Queen Website (link)
  10. Domino’s Website (link)
  11. Dunkin’ Donuts Press Release (link)
  12. Five Guys Website (link)
  13. Jack In The Box, Organic Authority Website (link)
  14. Jason’s Deli Website (link)
  15. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Press Release (link)
  16. Little Caesars Website (link)
  17. McDonalds Website (link)
  18. Moes, Focus Brands Website (link)
  19. Panera Bread’s Food Policy Statement, 2014 Panera Website (link)
  20. Papa Johns Press Release (link)
  21. Pizza Hut Press Release (link)
  22. Popeyes, Reuters Website (link)
  23. Qdoba, Organic Authority Website (link)
  24. Sonic, Meat and Poultry News Website (link)
  25. Starbucks Press Release (link)
  26. Subway Press Release (link)
  27. Taco Bell Press Release (link)
  28. Tim Hortons, Reuters Website (link)
  29. Wendy’s Website (link)
  30. We’re eating more antibiotic-free chicken. But what about beef? The Guardian Website (link) 
  31. Antibiotic Resistance, World Health Organization Website (link)

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