Next time you think about getting a burger or some other meat-containing meal from Burger King, Arby’s, Olive Garden, Domino’s pizza, Buffalo Wild Wings, Starbucks or Applebees, you may want to consult a recent report that gave those restaurant chains an “F” for using beef that contains large amounts of antibiotics.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria

The report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, the Center for Food Safety, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Consumer Reports and the U.S. Pirg Education Fund examined the role that restaurants are playing in the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria – a burgeoning public health crisis that is being blamed for at least 23,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the CDC.

Industrial farms use antibiotics in animal feed and water to prevent disease in animals that are susceptible to infections due to their living conditions, which include being crowded into tight quarters.  Many farms use antibiotics before an infection has even occurred.

That overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry, according to experts, is contributing to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the incidence of relatively common infections becoming life-threatening because the drugs used to treat them no longer work.

Europe takes action

While antibiotic use is widespread in the U.S. meat industry, the European Parliament last year banned the use of antibiotics for animals that are important for human medicine and prohibits the use of any antimicrobials in livestock without a prescription from a vet.

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

Previous versions of the report have shown some increased commitments from the nation’s top restaurant chains to source chickens from producers who raise animals without the routine use of antibiotics – a change that has led to more responsible antibiotic use practices in the poultry industry.

Similar progress has not been made in the beef industry: in 2017, the beef sector accounted for 42 percent of the medically-important antibiotics sold to the meat industry — more than any other meat category.

The restaurants and the grades

Chipotle earned an “A” and Panera an “A-” for their approach to responsible antibiotic use in beef supplies. And in what could represent a major transition, this year iconic brands McDonald’s and Taco Bell set new commitments that earned them a “C” and “D” respectively. In July 2019, Taco Bell announced a new pledge to cut medically-important antibiotics in its vast beef supplies by 25 percent by 2025. Still, the report says that Taco Bell's pledge is not ambitious enough, and is unaccompanied by a comprehensive policy.

Wendy’s earned a “D+” this year for promoting only a “minor” antibiotic use reduction across a small portion of its U.S. beef supplies, and for only one medically important drug called tylosin. “Although it is imperative that beef producers curtail their use of tylosin, it is not the only antibiotic important to human medicine used in large quantities by the beef industry.”

McDonald's announcement of a commitment to monitor and reduce medically important antibiotic use in its beef supply bumped the chain from an F to a C in this year’s report and earned it the “Biggest Mooover” award. Subway was also in the “C” category. No restaurants earned a "B."

In addition to those noted above, other restaurant chains that received an “F” grade were: Pizza Hut, Sonic, Little Caesar’s, DQ, Jack-in-the-Box, Chili’s, iHop and Panda Express.

Government action needed

The organizations behind the report want regulatory action in order to achieve the kind of “lasting, industry-wide change needed to fully protect public health:”

  • Beef producers should only be allowed 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.

Download the Chain Reaction V report.