Averting An Antibiotic Apocalypse? Time For Global Restaurant Chains To Take Action

25/08/2016 11:02 | Updated 25 August 2016

Consumers International and its Members are calling on KFC, McDonald's and Subway to take meat raised on antibiotics important for human medicine off their menus globally.

At the beginning of this month McDonald's USA announced that it had achieved its goal, of serving only chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine, eight months ahead of schedule. The announcement came in the run up to a UN High Level meeting on anti-microbial resistance, taking place in New York on 21st September.

Because of overuse, resistance to existing antibiotics is rising at alarming levels, and there is a dearth of new drugs being brought to market. Without antibiotics that work, infections, small cuts and minor surgeries could once again become killers.

Left unchecked, antimicrobial resistance (the collective term for resistance to all kinds of antimicrobial drugs, of which bacterial resistance to antibiotics is the most pressing) will kill 10 million a year by 2050 - more than cancer. It is already killing 700,000 a year. We are on the brink of what Professor Dame Sally Davies, UK Chief Medical Officer has called an antibiotic apocalypse.

Despite these dire warnings, animals destined to end up in our burgers, sausages and nuggets are being pumped full of antibiotics. In many cases, rather than being used to treat sick animals, antibiotics are being used to make them grow faster or to prevent the cramped unsanitary conditions they are kept in from making them sick. The more we use antibiotics, the more bacteria develop resistance to them.

There is strong consensus that measures to limit the use of antibiotics in farming should be a first port of call for the world's decision makers. The use of antibiotics in farm animals exceeds use in humans in many countries and globally is believed to be more than 50% of use. In the USA, more than 70% of antibiotics use is agricultural. Furthermore the use of antibiotics in farming is set to increase by two thirds from by 2030: from 63,200 tons in 2010, to 105,600 tons in 2030. The rise is driven by our monumental and growing global meat consumption.

So what has McDonalds actually done and will it make any difference? McDonald's has ended the use of antibiotics listed as critically important for human medicine by the World Health Organization in its poultry supply in the USA and has pledged to do the same in Canada.

In taking this action, McDonald's has gone further than some other chains in the USA. KFC, which has a larger number of restaurants in the USA than any other chicken chain and is the second highest in sales has not gone as far. It has said it will stop using just a handful of highest priority critically important antibiotics from the WHO list. KFC is under increasing pressure to go further. Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, (also subsidiaries of the Yum! Brands) have recently committed to serving chicken to its US customers raised without any of the antibiotics from the full WHO list. On 9 August, Yum! investors filed a shareholder resolution calling for KFC to follow suit.

On the other hand, there are chains in the USA that have gone further than McDonald's. Whereas McDonalds has only taken this action for the chicken it serves, Subway has committed to using chicken, turkey, beef, and pork raised without any antibiotics. In a report from a coalition of consumer and environmental groups last year Chipotle, Panera and Chick-Fil-A, were given A and B grades for their antibiotic policies whereas McDonald's was given a C.

The fact remains however, that these global chains are failing to make the same commitments outside of the USA. Whilst it is commendable that McDonald's has acted in the USA and Canada, where around 43% of its branches are located, it has not committed to act on pork or beef and has not made the same commitment on chicken in other parts of the world. McDonald's in Europe has said that it will stop the use of some important antibiotics in the chicken it serves, but fails to go as far as McDonald in the USA and McDonald in Canada. KFC and Subway have yet to make announcements anywhere outside of North America.

Of course we welcome any progress in this area and we don't suggest that the sole power to prevent an antibiotic apocalypse rests entirely with a few fast food chains - but these are significant players and can lead the way. When world leaders meet at the UN in September we will need strong, concerted, action on all fronts; including reducing use of antibiotics in human health and animal health and tackling the development of new drugs.

Given the scale of the global public health crisis the world is facing now due to antibiotic resistance, making partial commitments is simply not an option. There is no plan B.

KFC, McDonald's and Subway can and must go further. As awareness of the threat we are facing grows among consumers and politicians, they will be left with little choice. Far better to commit now, to work to set the standard for their industry globally, than be forced to catch up later.

Join us now in the call to take Antibiotics off the Menu.


UK Science