More Chicken Antibiotics Pledges; Where's the Beef & Pork?

The latest progress on ending the overuse of antibiotics in chicken is in stark contrast to utter lack of action in the pork and beef industries nationwide—from producers to restaurants.

In late June, Pizza Hut announced that all of the chicken served in its restaurants, including wings, will be raised without medically important antibiotics by 2022. This is encouraging news for the pizza chain, and for its parent company, Yum! Brands, which also owns KFC and Taco Bell.

With Pizza Hut’s expansion of its 2016 antibiotics policy, all three chains in the Yum! family—which together serve massive amounts of customers around the world every day—have meaningful commitments to only serve chicken raised without the use of medically important antibiotics. In fact, it may be that KFC’s 2017 commitment to transform antibiotics use practices in its own supply chain is what opened the door for Pizza Hut’s new policy: At the time of their 2017 announcement, KFC described how their pledge was expected to have a positive ripple effect for other chicken buyers.

To be sure, this is great news for the chicken wings on Pizza Hut's menu—but sausage and pepperoni? That's another story. This latest progress on chicken is in stark contrast to utter lack of action in the pork and beef industries nationwide—from producers to restaurants.

In fact, NRDC’s recently released report, Better Bacon Wanted: Why It’s High Time the U.S. Pork Industry Stopped Pigging Out on Antibiotics, brings into sharp relief the urgent need for true antibiotic stewardship in the pork industry. As things currently stand, roughly the same amount of medically important antibiotics is sold for use in pigs as for use in treating sick people in the U.S.—yet many diseases in pig herds are on the rise. This troubling finding indicates that the widespread practice of feeding medically important antibiotics to pigs that are not sick in hopes of preventing disease is not working.

This is especially frustrating because the U.S. pork industry does not need to start from scratch when it comes to implementing responsible antibiotics use practices. Leading pork-producing nations in Europe, namely Denmark and the Netherlands, successfully raise pigs at scale while simultaneously eschewing routine antibiotics use. In fact, Denmark and the Netherlands have cut antibiotics use in pig production by 27 percent and 57 percent respectively in just under a decade.

Meanwhile, NRDC and nearly 50 other organizations sent a clear message to the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) in late June that its approach to antibiotic stewardship won’t pass muster. The USRSB includes over 100 members from the retail, producer, processor, civil society, and allied industry sector who are attempting (and failing) to develop a beef value chain that is environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable. Rather than setting clear reduction goals and committing to ending the routine use of medically important drugs in U.S. beef production, the USRSB—which includes McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other leading food companies as members—relies solely on the Beef Quality Assurance Program (BQA). The BQA is an industry-developed antibiotic stewardship guide that merely discourages subtherapeutic uses, and openly supports the continued use of medically important antibiotics for disease prevention purposes. There is significant reason to believe that USRSB’s approach to antibiotics use in the beef sector will worsen, not help solve, the beef industry’s overuse of antibiotics, which already threatens the viability of critical human medicines.

Consumers are increasingly demanding better meat, and they're watching how their favorite brands are responding. NRDC and partner groups are helping to provide the transparency they need. We are gearing up to release the fourth annual edition of Chain Reaction, our fast food sector antibiotics scorecard, in the coming months. Just as we've seen companies improve their grades over the years by addressing antibiotics use in their chicken supplies, we stand ready to give credit to any company that steps into the leader’s circle and commits to responsible antibiotics use in its beef and pork supplies.

These kinds of pledges can’t come soon enough. After all, 2016 FDA sales data shows that a whopping 80% of medically important drugs sold for animals use in the United States are attributed to the pork and beef industry. In contrast, just 6% of medically important drugs sold for animal use went to chickens. To stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we've got to crack down on overuse of the drugs where it's happening most. Those numbers make it crystal clear: that's in our beef and pork industries.

In the face of federal inaction, the marketplace has been driving progress on this critical public health issue. Starting in 2014 with Chick-fil-A’s pledge, restaurant chains catalyzed tremendous change in antibiotics use practices in the chicken industry. And Pizza Hut is just the latest in this positive trend.

I urge the fast food industry to continue responding to consumer demand. It is time to clean up antibiotic use practices behind the beef and pork served on their menus. Burger lovers, bacon lovers—and about all of us who rely on these life-saving miracle drugs—will thank them for it.