New Year, Same Old Greenwashing for Wendy’s

Last week, Wendy’s revealed a new corporate motto alongside their 2019 Corporate Social Responsibility report. “Good Done Right” sure sounds promising as a north star for corporate action. But when it comes to the company’s antibiotic use policy, it is more accurate to say “Greenwashing, As Usual” until at least 2021, possibly until 2024. 

NRDC and our allies in the Antibiotics Off the Menu coalition have been publicly calling on Wendy’s for more than six months to set a meaningful policy that reduces antibiotic use in the company’s vast beef supplies. At its annual meeting last spring, company leaders told shareholders that reduction targets would be announced in 2020. Though the year is still very young, this latest news from Wendy’s leaves my hopes dashed.

Public health experts have long warned that when meat producers use medically important antibiotics routinely in groups of animals, including cattle herds, it drives drug resistance. This in turn fuels the worsening epidemic of drug-resistant infections that now claim up to 162,000 human lives in the United States each year.

Wendy’s has been trying to seem like an antibiotics leader in the restaurant sector for more than a year now. But it earned its “Biggest Wanna Be” moniker in last year’s Chain Reaction Antibiotics Scorecard for a reason. Rather than addressing the global health threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria head on and committing to a corporate policy that comprehensively restricts the routine use of medically important antibiotics, Wendy’s has instead taken baby steps to reduce use of just one medically important drug, tylosin, in a small percentage of its beef supply chain. Tylosin is a macrolide antibiotic, related to the common human drug erythromycin. Macrolides are considered to be highly critically important by the World Health Organization (WHO) yet are routinely used by cattle feedlot operators in the U.S. Not only should routine tylosin use by disallowed in the Wendy’s beef supply chain, the company’s continued insistence that tylosin is the only medically important drug used routinely in cattle feedlot operations lies in the face of evidence that other drugs, particularly tetracyclines, are consumed in large quantities.

While the WHO published clear guidelines on responsible antibiotics use in livestock back in 2017, last fall the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, in partnership with NRDC, published the Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use (CRAU) standards for beef, which for the first time offered a clear, verifiable path for producers to translate these recommendations into practice. Most importantly, CRAU standards are third-party audited by USDA, giving companies like Wendy’s a chance to meaningfully improve antibiotic use in their supply chain and provide customers assurance and transparency.

Wendy’s recent promises fall far short of even the lowest tier guidelines laid out in the CRAU standard:

Wendy’s Approach

Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use (CRAU) Standard Entry Level Permitted Uses

Addresses just one medically important antibiotic: tylosin

Addresses reductions across all medically important antibiotics

Reduces one antibiotic by 20%; routine use otherwise allowed

Medically important antibiotic use is prohibited, except to treat or control disease, or in medical situations pertaining to individual cattle

Tylosin allowed for routine use

Highest Priority Critically Important Antimicrobials (including tylosin) not permitted for routine use like disease prevention or even for the less common disease control purpose.

The company’s glacial pace of change is also entirely inconsistent with the urgency demanded by the antibiotic resistance crisis. Experts predict that by 2050, up to 10 million people around the world could be made sick every year by bacteria resistant to medicines that are a critical part of a doctor’s toolkit. Major beef buyers like Wendy’s have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to help curb the antibiotic resistance crisis by requiring their suppliers to stop using these precious medicines on a routine basis, when animals are not sick. So far, Wendy’s is choosing instead to mislead the public in the hopes that people won’t notice.

But we aren’t falling for it. Based on a December shareholder resolution filed by Wendy’s investors on this issue, it appears as though some of the chain’s most important customers will continue to demand accountability.

About the Authors

Lena Brook

Director, Food Campaigns, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.