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Why You Should Care About the NRDC's Antibiotics Scorecard

Image credit: NRDC

Since 2015, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has been publishing its Chain Reaction report, produced in collaboration with Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, Food Animal Concerns Trust and Center for Food Safety. Chain Reaction is basically a report card, showing how well major fast-food (and -casual) restaurants are doing at limiting their reliance on meat products raised on antibiotics. Here’s a look at 2017’s scorecard:

As you can see, far more restaurants earn an “F” than an “A.” Many of them probably don’t want you to see this scorecard.

The NRDC’s report looks at where restaurants are getting meat and poultry, their policies, the total amount of antibiotics in their meat products, and how transparent restaurants are about their sourcing practices. Chipotle and Panera are doing a great job because they’ve stopped getting poultry, beef and pork from sources that raise them on antibiotics.

While Subway’s poultry no longer contains antibiotics, the same can’t be said for its beef and pork. According to the NRDC, Subway is on a “long timeline” towards serving you beef or pork sandwiches without antibiotics. The same can be said for the other brands with a passing grade that don’t earn an “A.” They’ve made steps towards eliminating or limiting poultry raised on antibiotics. But when it comes to antibiotic-free pork and beef, they’re still working on implementing policies. If you go to any of these restaurants, it’s best to order the chicken.

So, what’s the problem with antibiotics in meat and poultry? One word: resistance.

Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are increasingly threatening people’s health, in part because we’re consuming meat that’s been pumped full of drugs:

  • 70 percent of the antibiotics we take are also used to grow livestock
  • 88 percent of swine receive antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease (even before disease is detected)
  • Almost all dairy cows receive prophylactic antibiotics

Additionally, antibiotics add more pollution to the environment. Nearly 90 percent of these drugs are excreted in an animal’s urine, and 75 percent are excreted in feces. Then, they can enter water tables and get picked up by insects.

Scientists have been noting an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria and wondering what, exactly, is the cause. Tuberculosis, a bacterial disease, is on the list of public health concerns. It’s re-emerging with an antibiotic-resistant nature after many thought it was under control.

When we’re overexposed to antibiotics in food sources, on top of exposure from prescriptions, it helps bacteria develop a resistance to antibiotics. The CDC estimates that antibiotic-resistant infections cause a minimum of 2 million illnesses per year and at least 23,000 deaths. According to the CDC:

Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food animals can lead to resistant infections in humans. Studies have shown that:

  • Antibiotic use in food animals allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to grow and crowd out the bacteria that do respond to antibiotics;
  • Resistant bacteria can contaminate food from the animals; and
  • Resistant bacteria in food can cause infections in humans

Furthermore, antibiotic-resistant infections aren’t the only problem with using drugs to grow food animals. 

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC): “Large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)” that use antibiotics also pose a “significant” threat to the environment. CAFOs are “known emitters of air pollutants – such as hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds – and are also a significant source of water pollutants, including nitrogen, phosphorus, pathogens, antibiotics, pesticides and heavy metals.”

Essentially, the unsanitary, tightly packed conditions that make animals need antibiotics in the first place are also harmful to the environment.

Fast food brands could help by only buying meat and poultry from farms that practice sustainable agriculture — agriculture that doesn’t depend on antibiotics to grow animals. According to Sustainable Table: “Today, many animal farmers do not use antibiotics at all, in large part because they don’t have to compensate for unhealthy conditions associated with CAFO production systems. On these types of farms, animals are raised in clean environments with adequate space to reduce animal stress and the likelihood of infections.”

The NRDC reports that fast-food restaurants sell a quarter of all chicken products in the US, and McDonald’s is the largest beef buyer. If fast-food chains throughout the country can follow Panera’s and Chipotle’s example and commit to only buying meat from farms that don’t use antibiotics, they may help stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and benefit the environment by helping promote sustainable agriculture practices.


Daniel Matthews earned his Bachelor's in Creative Writing from Boise State University. Besides the witten word, he loves writing songs and plays multiple instruments. Please find him on Twitter.

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