July 6 is National Fried Chicken Day. Along with gems like National Sunglasses Day, Toasted Marshmallow Day, and Fruitcake Toss Day, you could say this falls into the same category as other silly, made-up holidays.
But this year, instead of using this moment as a marketing gimmick, KFC—the nation’s largest fast food chicken chain—should take the opportunity to give its customers something meaningful to celebrate: making a commitment to selling better chicken. And that means chicken raised without the routine use of antibiotics important to human medicine.
We challenge KFC to live up to its recent claims that the company is going back to its roots and making chicken as it did back in the 1950’s by starting with how it’s raised.
More than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the United States are now sold for use on livestock and poultry. The vast majority (more than 96 percent) of those drugs are approved for use en masse in feed or water—often to animals that are not sick in order to speed up their growth and help them survive crowded and unsanitary conditions on industrial farms. This overuse contributes to the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections in humans.
In May, NRDC launched a campaign calling on KFC to do their part in addressing this public health crisis. Days later, I made the same request in-person before the company’s leadership, at their annual shareholder meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.
Unfortunately, the company’s response to these calls for action so far has not been encouraging. Instead of expressing a commitment to phasing out antibiotics at KFC, Greg Creed, the CEO of its parent company, Yum! Brands, has said they are simply “evaluating” options—leaving out any details or plans to make this happen.
This is particularly disappointing considering that top players in the U.S. restaurant and chicken industry are already taking action. In contrast to KFC, fast food competitors like Chick-Fil-A, McDonald’s and Subway have increasingly been making and implementing their own antibiotics commitments. Over the past couple months, even KFC sister companies Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, both also owned by Yum!, quietly announced first steps to address antibiotics in their chicken supplies. Yet, Mr. Creed made sure to distance KFC, saying that different brands require different solutions.
Major chicken suppliers—like Tyson, Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride—are also increasingly shifting toward responsible antibiotics use. On Monday, Perdue announced their latest efforts to improve animal husbandry, which include making a series of new company-wide animal welfare improvements on their farms. Creating healthier living conditions on their farms is a far smarter than the more common industry practice of using antibiotics as a crutch to stave off disease in typically crowded and stressful conditions on industrial farms.
Meanwhile, the need for action to curb antibiotic resistance is growing ever more urgent—underscoring the need for KFC and others to follow suit.
In recent months, bacteria resistant to colistin—an antibiotic with such strong side effects that it is only used when all others fail—had been spreading rapidly around the world after its discovery in China just last November. The fact that it had reached American soil is news that doctors, public health experts, microbiologists, and anyone tracking the resistance issue had been dreading. First found in a human patient in Pennsylvania with an E. coli infection a little more than a month ago, two resistant samples from pigs have also appeared in South Carolina and Illinois. And on Tuesday, reports suggest that colistin-resistant bacteria was found in another patient, this time in New York.
While KFC continues to stall, infectious disease experts at the CDC are pleading with Washington decision-makers to pay closer attention, warning that “antibiotic resistance is perhaps the single most important infectious disease threat of our time.” And our medical antibiotics toolkit is continuing to shrink when people get sick.
That’s a recipe for a somber National Fried Chicken Day. And one that KFC has the power, and responsibility, to help change.