Where’s the (Better) Beef? Not at Wendy’s.

One day after McDonald’s announced its bar-raising commitment to end the routine use of medically important antibiotics by its global beef suppliers, Wendy’s tried to jump on the bandwagon—but rather than following their competitor’s lead and taking meaningful action, it tried to greenwash a teeny tiny baby step above business as usual.

Here are the facts. In the 4th annual fast food scorecard released by NRDC and partner groups in October, Wendy’s earned a “D-“ for its antibiotics practices. Today’s announcement would not change that grade—it’s just an attempt from Wendy’s to put lipstick on a pig (or in this case, a cow).

Wendy’s just narrowly avoided a failing grade in our last scorecard because of a 2017 announcement that the company would source 15 percent of its beef from producers that had cut the use of just ONE medically important antibiotic—tylosin—by 20 percent.

A year later, despite a misleading press release patting itself on the back, it seems that very little has changed. The company now says it sourced ”about 20 percent” of its beef in 2018 from these so-called “progressive” producers, rather than the 15 percent promised earlier.

While it’s good they kept their promise, this is a very minor improvement over the status quo. Wendy’s has not committed to ending the routine use of medically important antibiotics in its beef supplies, as McDonald's just did, nor has Wendy's set any concrete reduction targets for medically important antibiotics used in the production of the beef it sells.

So far as we can tell, there is no explanation of what Wendy's plans to do on antibiotics except to try to hijack the term “responsible” without substance. Wendy’s only says that it has a “long-term goal of finding ways to phase out the routine use of medically important antibiotics on the farms” that supply it. Nothing in its publicly available materials describe limits to the use of medically important antibiotics. The new announcement also fails to set any firm timeline or deadline.

Instead, Wendy’s seems to be hoping it can convince consumers that it is taking meaningful action, without actually doing so. It states, for example, that all the pork and beef it serves has been USDA-inspected to check for any potential antibiotic residue remaining in the meat. This statement muddles the issue altogether, because the reasons for avoiding routine antibiotic use in beef production have nothing to do with avoiding residues, and everything to do with reducing the forces that hasten the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on farms and in the food supply. All USDA-inspected meat has long been checked for antibiotic residues, so Wendy’s attempt to frame this to the company’s benefit makes us think it might be trying to intentionally mislead consumers.

This is greenwashing to a T, with the company attempting to get credit in the marketplace for a nearly meaningless pledge, no doubt prodded by the much more substantive commitment from its competitor McDonald’s and the attention it received.

Wendy’s famously asked “Where’s the Beef?” in a 1984 ad campaign touting the size of its burgers compared to competitors. But in 2018, our question for Wendy’s is: Where’s the Better Beef?

About the Authors

David Wallinga, MD

Senior Health Advisor, Healthy People & Thriving Communities

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