Now through November 18th, the World Health Organization is hosting World Antibiotics Awareness Week, a yearly opportunity for all of us to turn our collective attention to the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance that is silently unfolding around us. This international call to action comes on the heels of the United Nations General Assembly declaration passed at the end of September, which commits countries to put plans in plans to end inappropriate uses of these precious drugs in human medical settings and also in agriculture. By 2050, drug resistant infections are predicted to kill 10 million people a year—more than die from cancer today. We cannot act soon enough to reign in overuse and misuse of antibiotics.
The US chicken industry in particular shows great promise in ending its addiction to routine antibiotics. At NRDC, we estimate that over 40% of US chicken is produced by companies with antibiotics stewardship[i] commitments or programs.
One company in particular is well-positioned to tip the chicken industry over the 50% mark: KFC, the nation’s largest chicken restaurant chain. NRDC, our allies, and hundreds of thousands of consumers have been publicly calling on KFC to join the leader’s circle on antibiotics for the better part of 2016. But thus far, our requests have been met with confusing media statements rather than substantive, timebound commitments to change. KFC said back in August that they were reviewing options for ending routine antibiotics use with their suppliers. The company has been silent ever since.
As KFC hedges and stalls, consumer demand for responsibly raised meat and poultry continues to rise. According to a recent Nielsen research report, U.S. meat products labeled "antibiotic-free" posted growth of 28.7 percent from 2011-2015. KFC’s chief rival Chick-fil-A, which was one of the first major chains to commit to serving only chicken produced without antibiotics, is thriving. Meanwhile, leading competitors like McDonald’s, Subway, Wendy’s, and even KFC’s sister company Taco Bell have either completely switched over to chicken produced without routine use of medically important antibiotics or are on their way to doing so.
A future without antibiotics in our medical toolkit is a dark one. I hope that KFC’s leadership is paying attention to this international cry for change. There is no better time for action than right now.
[i] By stewardship, I mean an end to the routine use of medically important antibiotics (or all antibiotics), either to speed up animal growth or to help animals survive crowded and unsanitary conditions on industrial farms, reserving antibiotics use solely for times when animals are sick.