Last week, on a balmy, spring day, I traveled to Wendy’s headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, where shareholders from near and far came together for the company’s annual general meeting to hear directly from Chairman Nelson Peltz, CEO Todd Penegor and other leadership staff about plans and prospects for the year ahead. It was also a time for shareholders to address those same leaders and express concerns about policies and practices that Wendy’s needs to fix. In my case, the topic of concern was Wendy’s—the third-largest burger chain in the U.S.—weak antibiotics policy for its beef supplies.
Wendy’s—which earned a "D-" on our 2018 Chain Reaction Burger Scorecard—tried to position itself as making progress on this critical public health issue in its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) presentation to shareholders. They shared their antibiotics journey in beef to date (which NRDC has critiqued here and here). They made a nod to setting reduction targets in 2020. They even went as far as saying that the company pledged to phase out routine antibiotic use on supplier farms as far back as 2016.
But, as I stated in my remarks before Wendy’s leadership and shareholders, these vague promises that lack detail, substance or concrete timeframes are wholly insufficient when it comes to saving antibiotics, the backbone of modern medicine.
Instead, I challenged Wendy’s to commit to a comprehensive policy that ends the routine use of antibiotics across all of the company’s beef supplies and applies to all medically important drugs. I even delivered a letter to Mr. Penegor, signed by over 60 public health, environmental, sustainable food, animal welfare and consumer interest organizations, that echoed this request.
After all, companies like Wendy’s that buy millions of pounds of beef every year have a particular responsibility to clean up their antibiotics policies. This is exactly what Wendy’s competitors are doing: from Chipotle and Panera, who were early out of the gate, to Shake Shack, McDonald’s, and more, the leaders circle is growing rapidly and Wendy’s ought to be a part of it, especially in light of decades of insufficient federal action on this issue.
A responsible, comprehensive policy like this would mean reserving drugs only for times when animals are sick, or in cases of disease outbreaks—and not to routinely distribute them en masse to compensate or poor diets and conditions on industrial feedlots. This approach aligns with recommendations from the World Health Organization. Humane animal husbandry goes hand in hand with responsible antibiotic use. This includes healthier diets for cows, as well as less crowded and less stressful conditions on feedlots. Like Wendy’s, NRDC and partner groups agree that antibiotics should be used to treat sick animals drugs – so Wendy’s can no longer use animal welfare as an excuse for inaction as they have done in the past.
Ending routine antibiotics overuse in livestock is critical to 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. We are urging Wendy’s—as one of the world’s largest meat buyers—to do its part.
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).
Cattle are the largest consumers of medically important drugs in the U.S. livestock sector: 42 percent of those 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 clear, detailed policy from Wendy’s to end all routine antibiotic use in its beef supplies, combined with an ambitious five-year reduction target and third-party verification on its progress, will send an important message that business as usual is no longer an option. Anything less remains lipstick on a cow.