McDonald’s rocked the fast food industry last month when it became the first major burger chain to announce plans to reduce antibiotic use in the company’s vast global beef supply. In the weeks following, competitors have been scrambling to catch up. Unfortunately, so far, they have not.
Wendy’s and Taco Bell have both since made public announcements about antibiotics and beef. But the fine print of those pledges reveals neither company is committing to meaningful change, as McDonald’s has. Instead, their pledges appear to be little more than an attempt to keep up and have little in the way of substance behind them.
In other words: lipstick on a pig cow.
Two days after McDonald’s made their announcement, Wendy’s said the company plans to purchase beef with the “Progressive Beef” label. While that name sounds positive, unfortunately, as my colleague Dr. David Wallinga explains, it is “a very minor improvement over the status quo.” Last week, Taco Bell jumped into the fray with a new “sustainable” beef pledge that also provides very little improvement over current practices in its supply chain, and relies on a weak framework created by the deceptively named U.S Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB).
Unfortunately, neither of these attempts at antibiotic stewardship amount to more than a new facade for business-as-usual practices. That’s because both rely on the Beef Quality Assurance program (BQA) as a proxy for responsible antibiotic use. But truly responsible the BQA is not.
Here’s why: it allows producers to use antibiotics for so-called “disease prevention” purposes. This practice is exactly what NRDC and leading world health experts have been calling for an end to in the livestock industry. It involves routinely administering drugs – often in feed and water - to animals that are NOT sick, as poor compensation for stressful, unsanitary living conditions and health problems that arise from inappropriate diets. This practice is fueling the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can make infections in people and animals harder, and sometimes impossible, to treat.
Last summer, over 50 NGOs wrote to the USRSB leadership, detailing our serious concerns about many facets of that proposed program. At the top of the list was the lack of a meaningful commitment by the Roundtable sustainability indicators to reign in antibiotic overuse in U.S. beef production. What we said then remains true today. There is value to many of the 14 BQA antibiotic use guidelines relied upon by the USRSB. However, net progress achieved by implementing these strategies to reduce antibiotic use would almost certainly be negated by the last item on the BQA list, which explicitly includes “disease prevention” as an accepted practice, and merely “discourages” subtherapeutic antibiotic use.
This hallmark of the BQA program is also its Achilles heel. It directly contradicts the 2017 WHO “Guidelines on Use of Medically Important Antimicrobials in Food-producing Animals.” That policy clearly calls for the elimination of all routine use of medically important antibiotics in food animals, including for so-called disease prevention purposes. Using medically important drugs routinely for disease prevention is also explicitly disallowed in the McDonald’s beef policy and by newly passed European Union laws.
With BQA as their common backbone, neither Wendy’s or Taco Bell’s pledges include concrete commitments to reduce antibiotic use in beef production. For example, while Wendy’s promises to better understand antibiotic use in its beef supply, there is no plan for year-over-year reductions or any other benchmarks that would allow the public to clearly understand how these precious medicines are being used, on which animals, and during what times. Without these details, we are left with window dressing.
Until Wendy’s, Taco Bell and the programs they work with commit to ending the routine use of medically important drugs and set real antibiotic use reduction goals for their beef suppliers, they risk greenwashing progress on one of the greatest public health threats in the world today.
This is a risk neither people nor animals can afford to live with.