KFC: Mission Accomplished on Antibiotics

With this commitment, the popular fast-food restaurant is helping to transform antibiotic use practices in the chicken industry.

Helen Sessions/Alamy Stock Photo

The best and most laudable promises are those that are kept. Today, KFC announced that it fulfilled its April 2017 pledge to end the use of medically important antibiotics in its entire U.S. chicken supply.

This is very welcome news for its customers and all of us who will rely on these miracle drugs to make us healthy at some point in our lives. It is also a symbol of an amazing transformation that has transpired across the entire chicken industry over the course of a few short years—and a testament to the power of the fast-food industry to push that progress forward.

Just a few years ago, NRDC was calling on KFC, as one of the country's largest purchasers of chicken, to make this important change. Now we are proud to welcome KFC into the leaders’ circle and express appreciation for the steps it has taken to transform its supply chain. With Washington so far failing to comprehensively address overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry, leadership in the marketplace—like today’s news from KFC—is essential to preserving the effectiveness of these life-saving drugs for people and for animals.

Starting in 2014, in response to increasing consumer concern about the antibiotic resistance crisis—fueled by overuse of these drugs—restaurant chains and their suppliers set of a remarkable domino effect in the chicken industry when it came to responsible antibiotic use practices. The following year, NRDC and allies first published the annual Chain Reaction scorecard grading the top 25 restaurant chains on their antibiotics policies and practices; just five received passing grades.

By 2016, when NRDC first directly encouraged KFC, the nation’s most iconic chicken chain, to take action, we were in the midst of an arc of change—and the company’s announcement in 2017 pushed the chicken industry past the tipping point. By the time we released our fourth Chain Reaction scorecard last fall, 18 of out of the top 25 restaurant chains in the United States had meaningful antibiotic policies in place, the vast majority of them for chicken. More than half of the U.S. chicken industry—spurred by commitments from fast-food chains and meat producers—is now under a commitment to address antibiotics overuse in its supply chain.

Save Antibiotics

With at least two million Americans suffering from antibiotic-resistant infections every year and at least 23,000 dying as a direct result, this impressive progress in the industry is great news for anyone worried about keeping the drugs working when sick people and animals need them. That’s especially true when nearly two-third of medically important antibiotics are sold for use on animals, not people—and the vast majority are not used to treat sick animals but administered on a regular basis as compensation for the stressful and unsanitary conditions on factory farms.

Today’s KFC news is also a wise business move that meets today’s consumers where they are at. After all, research shows that more and more eaters are leading with their values at checkout. They want to see better ingredients in their food, they care about how food is produced, and, above all, they are looking for companies to be open and honest about the production practices behind the food they sell.

I started working at NRDC on a rainy, cold January four years ago, joining our Food & Agriculture team to expand our marketplace-focused policy efforts and convince companies to innovate their approach to the critically important issue of antibiotic overuse in the livestock industry. I never would have predicted then that in less than five years, our advocacy (and that of our allies) would tip the chicken industry on this issue.

But as we celebrate how far we have come, we also know the fight to save our miracle drugs is still far from over. In contrast to chicken, the beef industry has taken very little action to date. And with 42 percent of medically important antibiotics sold to the U.S. livestock sector going to cows—compared to only 5 percent for chicken—addressing overuse in beef production is critical to combat drug resistance.

Fortunately, we are seeing a spark of change beginning there, too. Last month, McDonald’s became the first major national burger chain to announce plans to reduce antibiotic use in its global beef supplies, raising the bar for its competitors and sending an unmistakable market signal to beef producers worldwide.

I am hopeful that the next few years we bring a similar ripple effect in the beef industry—and the promise of a healthier future for all of us.

About the Authors

Lena Brook

Director, Food Campaigns, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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