World's Largest Chain (Subway) Gets "F" for Antibiotics Use

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Pressure keeps mounting for Subway, the world's largest fast food chain, to change the way it does business.

Headlines recently may have focused on the company's disgraced, now former spokesman, Jared Fogle. But a growing chorus is calling on Subway--which has long cultivated its image as a healthier fast food option--to walk the talk by no longer buying sandwich meats from suppliers who give antibiotics routinely to chickens and turkeys, pigs or cows.

In today's development, Subway and 19 other restaurant chains received failing grades in a scorecard released by NRDC and a number of other consumer, health and environmental groups. The scorecard rates America's 25 biggest fast food and fast casual chains on their meat and poultry antibiotics policies. (Note: Research for the scorecard report, called Chain Reaction: How Top Restaurants Rate on Reducing Use of Antibiotics in Their Meat Supply, was compiled by NRDC along with Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Keep Antibiotics Working, and Center for Food Safety).

Release of the scorecard follows months of calls for Subway, which has 44,000 restaurants in 110 countries, to adopt better antibiotics practices. In June, nearly 60 groups sent a letter to Subway's CEO, Fred DeLuca, asking him to commit the company to doing more to reduce antibiotics use in the company's supply chain. And in August, around Subway's 50th anniversary, NRDC amplified that call by launching a campaign pushing Subway to commit to buying meat and poultry produced without routine antibiotics.

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Other groups have separately called for Subway to improve their meat procurement policies.

There have been second-hand indications that Subway's thinking about changing its ways. But the company has yet to set a clear policy or make a firm commitment to improve its practices, as my colleague Lena Brook has blogged. It's that lack of policy or commitment that resulted in Subway receiving an "F" on today's scorecard.

In business, if you're standing still, you're falling behind the competition. Perhaps nowhere is change roiling so much as in the fast food industry.

Even before Mr. Fogle's arrest, the Washington Post reported a $300 million drop (3%) in Subway's U.S. sales last year. And this sales drop --for a company long touting itself as the healthier fast food option--comes despite booming sales generally of healthy food products, and consumer spending on food increasingly being driven by health (even when it means higher prices).

We think restaurants billing themselves as a 'healthier' option have a particular responsibility to live up to that image by making sure to have procurement policies that help reduce the overuse of antibiotics. Today's customers are savvy enough to look for that, too, when choosing where to buy their lunch.

The handful of Subway's competitors not receiving an "F" in today's scorecard would likely agree: Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Chick-fil-A, McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts. All have committed to steps to source meat raised without antibiotics for their menus.

We know the more antibiotics are used, the more they spur the creation and spread of drug-resistant bacteria; and around 70% of all antibiotics important to human medicine--or medically important--are sold in the U.S. for use in the animals that become our food. So, restaurants that continue to serve meat raised with the routine use of these drugs are part of the huge, and worsening, problem with antibiotic resistant infections.

All of the companies appearing in this scorecard instead have the opportunity instead to be part of the solution. A global giant like Subway, for example, has enormous reach. Its sandwiches not only feed millions of people, its sourcing decisions can have serious positive leverage, rippling outward to drive change across the much bigger meat supply chain.

By making a firm, time-bound commitment to phasing out its suppliers' production of meat raised with routine antibiotics, Subway can better live up to the healthy image they've long projected. And they just might improve their bottom line at the same time.