It’s time for the fast-food giant to do its part in fighting one of today’s greatest global health threats.
Next week, millions of Americans will have hamburgers on their mind—and on their plates. Not only will people across the country be firing up their grills for Memorial Day gatherings, the holiday just so happens to lead right into the lesser-known National Hamburger Day (May 28). Rather than barbecuing, I will be spending that day thinking about how the beef that goes into those burgers is produced; I’ll also be prepping for an appearance at Wendy’s annual shareholder meeting at their headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, on June 4.
An important topic of discussion at the shareholder meeting is expected to be the company’s troubling refusal to join fellow fast-food competitors in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program. This program seeks to eliminate sexual violence and forced labor for farmworkers that pick the fruits and vegetables in the supply chains of participating food retailers, and a growing chorus of farmworkers and consumers alike has called, now for over three years, for a boycott until Wendy’s leadership joins the Fair Food Program.
I’ll be at the meeting to call on the company to take action on yet another area of corporate responsibility related to how the food Wendy’s serves is produced: antibiotic overuse in its beef supplies. We are asking Wendy’s to do its part in fighting one of the greatest global health threats of today: antibiotic-resistant bacteria (sometimes known as “superbugs”) that make once-common infections difficult or impossible to treat.
Recent estimates indicate that more than 160,000 U.S. deaths annually could be attributed to drug-resistant infections—making it the third-leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer. To curb the spread of resistance, leading experts have long warned we must stop squandering these drugs when they aren’t needed. While the problem of overuse in human medicine is a contributing factor that needs to be addressed, nearly two-thirds of antibiotics important to human medicine in the United States are sold for use on animals used for food, not people (and often given to animals when they are not sick). And 42 percent of medically important antibiotics sold for animal use goes to the beef industry, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration sales estimates. That means fixing these problematic practices in beef production is essential to addressing the antibiotic resistance crisis.
A company like Wendy’s—the third-largest burger restaurant in the United States, selling millions of burgers every day—wields enormous market influence. We’re urging them to use that power for good before we lose the ability to rely on these powerful drugs in human and animal medicine.
Taking definitive action on antibiotic use in its beef supply may not only be essential to protecting public health; it just may be good for the company’s bottom line as well. That’s because consumers are increasingly demanding better meat, and other burger chains are taking note. Millennial favorites like Shake Shack and BurgerFi are already serving only beef raised without antibiotics in their restaurants. (Because of this, both of these companies earned "A" grades on last year’s burger edition of the annual Chain Reaction antibiotics scorecard released by NRDC and allies.) Even old-guard leader McDonald’s—the largest beef buyer in the world—has stepped up its game: Last fall, the company publicly released a groundbreaking comprehensive global policy to limit antibiotic use in its massive beef supply chain. If they can do it, Wendy’s can, too.
In contrast, Wendy’s—which earned a "D-" on our 2018 burger scorecard—has so far only put lipstick on the proverbial
pig cow. Two days after McDonald’s made its groundbreaking announcement, Wendy’s tried to keep up appearances by updating its antibiotic policy for beef—but the fine print of this promise revealed it was far from the same as McDonald’s. The company said it was buying from producers that reduced just one medically important drug by 20 percent...and only in 20 percent of its beef supply. In other words, much talk, little action. We are hopeful this was just a misguided attempt at action, but it’s hard to see how the announcement was anything other than an attempt to mislead consumers into thinking that the company is seriously addressing this issue.
We are calling on Wendy’s to do better. That means immediately adopting a time-bound antibiotic use reduction policy for all its U.S. beef supplies that prohibits the routine use of all medically important antibiotics on animals when they are not sick. In order to provide assurance to consumers that these improved practices are being effectively implemented, the Wendy’s policy should also be verified by a neutral third party.
We know this change is possible—we’ve seen it happen before when the fast-food industry took a stand on chicken. In just a few years, leading restaurant chains like Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, KFC, and many others decided to commit to better chicken and end the routine use of antibiotics in their chicken supply chains—pushing the industry over the tipping point. In fact, according to an industry report, in 2018 a whopping 69 percent of chicken in the United States was raised without antibiotics at all or without drugs identified as medically important by the World Health Organization.
A health threat as serious as antibiotic resistance demands bold action, not baby steps. With policy efforts to address the problems in Washington stalled, marketplace leadership is essential. Wendy’s seems to want its customers to think it is taking this issue seriously. The best way to do that is to make a genuine commitment to take concrete action. We are here and ready to help them do that.
Wendy’s can keep its hamburgers old-fashioned, but it’s time for the company to bring its antibiotics practices into the 21st century.