Fast-food burger chains are in a prime position to literally save lives. Since most of the beef in the US is bought and served by these burger chains, if they used only antibiotic-free beef in their burgers, it could significantly reduce antibiotic-resistant infections that sicken millions and kill thousands every year. A few burger chains are saying “no” to antibiotics…but most are not. How does your favorite burger joint stack up?
WHY IT MATTERS
When animals get sick, like humans they sometimes need to be treated with antibiotics. However, a huge proportion of the antibiotics sold in the US that we humans depend on to treat our own illnesses are being given to cattle, pigs and chickens—and not just because they’re sick. Antibiotics are routinely given to livestock to promote faster growth or to prevent diseases caused by factory-farming practices. When we eat these animals, we routinely expose ourselves to antibiotics we don’t need—and that contributes to the rise (and the virulence) of antibiotic-resistant infections.
Consumer Reports and five other organizations recently reviewed the 25 top US fast-food chains’ policies and practices regarding antibiotics in their beef. They surveyed the companies directly and reviewed the companies’ publicly available data. They then gave each restaurant a grade based on points awarded in three categories—policy, implementation and transparency.
Results: Only two of the 25 chains earned an “A”—Shake Shack and BurgerFi. No other burger chain came close. Wendy’s did marginally better than the rest, with a grade of “D-minus.” But the other 22—including such favorites as McDonald’s, Burger King, Hardees and In-N-Out Burger, popular on the West coast—all got big fat “Fs.”
It’s not the kind of report card you want to bring home—and not the kind of burgers most Americans are aware they’re eating.
Some burger chains are taking steps to use only or mostly antibiotic-free meat, but those steps can seem, frankly, feeble. For instance, last August, in their updated “Vision for Global Antibiotic Stewardship,” McDonald’s pledged to use its vast scale “…for good, to influence industry change over the issue of Responsible Use of Antibiotics.” But so far, there has not been evidence of any action beyond sourcing antibiotic-free chicken. McDonald’s buys more beef than any other single buyer in the US and is one of the largest purchasers of chicken and pork. To be fair, while McDonald’s buys chicken for the US from two main suppliers, it buys beef from thousands of suppliers, so moving away from antibiotic-tainted beef is a more complex proposition.
More than 2 million Americans are sickened by antibiotic-resistant infections each year, and 23,000 of them die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Effective laws and policies that permit beef producers to use antibiotics only under the care of a licensed veterinarian to treat animals with a verified illness or, under certain conditions, to control a verified disease outbreak would be at least a step in the right direction.
Smarter antibiotic stewardship seems to be paying off for Shake Shack and BurgerFi. Both are expanding—Shake Shack’s sales grew by nearly a third last year, and BurgerFi, with 100 US locations currently, has plans to open as many as 20 new locations by the end of 2018.
But if you don’t have a Shake Shack or BurgerFi near you—yet—you can always buy antibiotic-free beef from your grocery store and make your own burgers. Yes, it’s more expensive than typical factory-farmed beef with antibiotics, and it’s certainly not as “fast” as a fast-food burger. But if enough people did that, McDonald’s and its ilk would get the message…pretty fast.