Will Subway make a 21st century decision on antibiotics in its 50th anniversary year?

Thumbnail image for Photo by James / @powerplantop on Flickr, under Creative Commons licensingToday, NRDC, along with nearly 60 leading health, environment, animal welfare, and consumer protection advocates, sent a compelling message to the leadership of Subway, the world's largest fast food restaurant chain, asking for swift and concrete action on the critical public health issue of antibiotic resistance. Specifically, we are calling on Subway to join the ranks of industry leaders like McDonald's, Panera Bread and Chipotle by committing to serve only meat and poultry produced without the routine use of antibiotics, starting with chicken, and adopting third-party audits to ensure progress is being made towards this goal.

We know antibiotics are meant to treat us when we're sick, not to be taken routinely. Unfortunately, in today's meat industry, most of the chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows that end up on our plates are raised with routine antibiotics use. By routine, I mean low-dose antibiotics are given to these food animals almost daily over the course of their lives to speed up growth and to prevent disease made almost inevitable given the poor diets, stress, crowding and often unsanitary conditions typical of confinement operations.

Consumers are increasingly concerned that the antibiotics they rely on to treat common conditions like strep throat, pneumonia, and urinary tract infections continue to be an effective part of the medical toolkit. Conservative estimates indicate that over two million get sick, and more than 23,000 Americans die annually, from resistant infections, which in the past could successfully be treated with the same antibiotics that are less effective today. While inappropriate use of antibiotics in human medicine is most certainly part of the problem, overuse of antibiotics in the production of food animals is also a known contributor to the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance. In the backdrop of this crisis is the reality that nearly 70% of antibiotics important to human medicine are sold in the United States for use on livestock and poultry, not humans.

Unfortunately, Subway lacks any publicly-accessible policy on antibiotics use in the production of the meat and poultry it purchases for over 26,000 restaurants worldwide and maintains a complete lack of transparency on antibiotics use in their supply chains. This is disappointing, considering the pride Subway takes in presenting itself as a healthier alternative to typical fast food fare. With U.S. retail sales down 3% - or $400 million - in 2014, and this being Subway's 50th anniversary celebration year, it is time for Subway to redefine the meaning of "healthy" in its food operations and commit to antibiotics stewardship.

Americans - especially the much sought after millennials - are growing wiser by the year about the impact of food production practices on our health, and the drumbeat for change is being heeded by industry titans and smaller-scale restaurant outlets alike. Heartening commitments to eliminate routine use of medically-important antibiotics from the likes of Tyson, Perdue and other top chicken producers will make access to a healthier supply of chicken readily available. We hope similar commitments on other meat and poultry products are not far behind.

Companies like Subway have a critical role to play in using their immense purchasing power to make these healthier, more sustainably-produced meat options more readily available to millions of Americans. By doing so, Subway can help safeguard the effectiveness of tomorrow's antibiotics by pushing their meat and poultry suppliers to end routine use of these drugs today. Switching to meat and poultry raised without the routine use of antibiotics would be great news not only for Subway customers, but also anyone who might need an antibiotic someday.

Tweet @Subway #SubwaySaveABX and ask the company to hold the antibiotics on those subs.

(Photo by James / @powerplantop on Flickr, under Creative Commons licensing)

About the Authors

Lena Brook

Food Policy Advocate, Food & Agriculture program

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