Where’s the Beef (From)? Consumers Seek Food Transparency

Slices of beef steak on meat fork on dark wooden background
Image: Lisovskaya Natalia / Shutterstock

Most of the top restaurant chains in the United States got failing grades for the antibiotics used in their beef.

Of the 21 fast-food and fast-casual chains that were surveyed by Consumer Reports, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, Center for Food Safety, Food Animal Concerns Trust, and United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund for the fifth year, 15 were slapped with an “F” on their report cards. A total of 25 chains were surveyed but four don’t serve beef (Dunkin’ Donuts, Chick-fil-A, KFC and Popeye’s).

The report, Chain Reaction V, “ranks America’s top restaurant chains on their policies relating to antibiotic use in their beef supply chains.”

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In what’s sure to be met with a breath of relief from a chain that has suffered several public relations controversies the past few years, Chipotle earned the highest mark for antibiotics used in its beef supply.

Panera Bread, whose parent company faced its own scandal earlier this year, scored an “A-“ for their beef.

None of the restaurant chains that were surveyed were given a “B.” For their antibiotics use, policies and practices regarding beef, McDonald’s received a “C.” This is a significant change compared to 2018 when the chain scored an “F.” The advocacy groups that conducted the survey gave the global fast-food juggernaut their “Biggest Moover” award due to the brand’s commitment to reducing the use of antibiotics in their beef supply.

A “C” was also given to Subway for making “a meaningful, time-bound commitment” to serve only beef that was raised without antibiotics (in its U.S. restaurants) by 2025. However, the authors noted that it made the pledge in 2015 and doesn’t seem to have made significant changes yet.

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Considering that a “D” will land most students on academic probation even though it’s technically a passing grade, the above grades can be considered the last of the good news for the remaining chains. A much less favorable award than the one McDonald’s received went to Wendy’s: “Biggest Wanna-be.” That award was accompanied by a “D+” grade “for taking only minor steps to reduce antibiotic use in its beef supply.” Ouch.

Taco Bell, which Chain Reaction V notes has committed to reducing the use of “medically important” antibiotics use in its beef supply by 25 percent by 2025, was hit with a “D.”

Because they failed to create policies, practices or procedures to reduce or restrict antibiotics used in their beef supply, failing grades were handed to the remaining U.S. restaurant chains, presented here in alphabetical order:

  • Applebee’s
  • Arby’s
  • Buffalo Wild Wings
  • Burger King
  • Chili’s
  • Dairy Queen
  • Domino’s Pizza
  • IHOP
  • Jack in the Box
  • Little Caesars
  • Olive Garden
  • Panda Express
  • Pizza Hut
  • Sonic
  • Starbucks

The authors of Chain Reaction V make several salient points about the restaurant chains that were surveyed, their grades, and their role in the beef supply chain. As major beef customers, these chains have the power to affect change.

Pointing to surveys conducted in the past, chains helped to force change from chicken producers. When top U.S. restaurant chains committed to sourcing chicken that was raised “without the routine use of antibiotics,” the result was more responsible antibiotic practices industry wide.

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According to a study released by The Poultry Site in May of this year, 51 percent of U.S. broiler chickens were raised within programs that eschewed the use of antibiotics; over 90 percent were raised within programs that rejected the use of medically important antibiotics.

If major chains, along with small chains and independent operations, demanded similar commitments from beef producers, beef supplies could become much healthier. Both the CDC and WHO view antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a top public health threat. The CDC estimates that 23,000 Americans die from infections that are resistant to antibiotics. When we consider how many Americans consume beef and other meats from fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, the importance of reducing or eliminating antibiotic use in U.S. beef supplies can’t be overstated.

Of course, this issue isn’t limited to operators committing to change. Lawmakers play a crucial role in this issue as well. From Chain Reaction V:

“Policymakers should only allow beef producers to use medically-important antibiotics under the guidance of a licensed veterinarian, and to treat animals diagnosed with an illness or to control a verified disease outbreak. Policymakers should also set national goals for reduction of antibiotic use in food animals, and dramatically improve collection and disclosure of antibiotic use data. Comprehensive policy reforms will ensure that all meat producers across the U.S. meet the same responsible antibiotic use standards. These reforms are vital to preserving life-saving medicines for the future health of both animals and people.”

The rise and success of farm-to-table venues, along with an overall increased interest by consumers in what they’re putting into their bodies, make this an industry-wide issue. More and more diners want to know where restaurants and bars are sourcing their food, and yes, they’re seeking to avoid antibiotics specifically.

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In 2018, Consumer Reports conducted a nationally representative phone survey of 1,014 adults. The results speak for themselves:

  • More than 50 percent of Americans know that feeding farm animals antibiotics can make antibiotics less effective in humans.
  • Nearly 90 percent of Americans think companies should meet a standardized definition to label their meat or poultry as “raised without antibiotics.”
  • Close to 60 percent of Americans would pay more for a burger that was made from meat from animals that were raised without antibiotics.
  • Nearly 60 percent of Americans said they’d be more willing to eat at a restaurant that served meat raised without antibiotics.
  • More than half of Americans (52 percent) think restaurants should stop serving meat/poultry that was raised with antibiotics.

Increased focus on clean (or at least cleaner) eating couple with industry disruption makes consumer choice even more crucial than ever before. As more guests seek transparency from restaurants and bars in making their dining choices, operators must be aware that their meat and poultry supply chains may soon become part of their decision-making process.

Resources

Chain Reaction V. United States Public Interest Research Group. October, 2019.

More than half of US broilers raised without antibiotics in 2018.” The Poultry Site. May 8, 2019.

Natural and Antibiotics Labels Survey Report. Consumer Reports. May 1, 2018.

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