Colonel Sanders, We Salute You!

KFC will eliminate medically important antibiotics in its U.S. chicken supply chain by the end of 2018.

Credit: ahavelaar/iStock

The good news: Nothing’s changing about the taste of America’s most famous fried chicken. The even better news: KFC is moving away from less delectable production practices in its chicken supply. On April 7, the company announced that its U.S. restaurants would stop buying chicken raised with the use of medically important antibiotics by the end of 2018. KFC’s new policy caps an NRDC outreach effort begun more than a year ago and proves that conscientious consumers can help shape a marketplace where good values are good business.

As one of the biggest buyers of birds among U.S. restaurants, KFC is making a significant contribution to public health with this latest move. While the company purchases only a fraction of each flock from any given farm it works with, its antibiotics policy will require suppliers to phase out medically important antibiotics from the diets of all the birds in a flock. As a result, KFC’s decision has positive ramifications beyond its own chicken supply.

The new commitment from KFC could help turn the tide on antibiotic overuse in the chicken industry. U.S. Food and Drug Administration data continue to show a worrying increase in sales of antibiotics for livestock use in drug classes that humans rely on to fight infections.

Here’s why that matters. More than 96 percent of those drugs are distributed in feed or water—often en masse to animals that are not sick. Industrial farmers have used the practice to speed growth and to help their livestock survive crowded and unsanitary conditions. When producers use antibiotics again and again, some bacteria become resistant, multiply, and spread.

As these drug-resistant “superbugs” proliferate across a farm, they pose a major public health risk. Resistant bacteria can spread from livestock facilities through air, water, and soil, and even inadvertently through workers. Eventually these bacteria can make their way to our communities, our kitchens, and our bodies, where they can share resistance genes with other bacteria. Infections from common food-borne bacteria, such as Salmonella, can become more resistant to antibiotics, making illnesses that were once easy to treat no longer so curable. Every year in the United States, at least two million people contract antibiotic-resistant infections, resulting in the deaths of at least 23,000. These infections also carry an annual price tag of $55 billion due to hospital costs combined with lost productivity.

NRDC has been fighting antibiotics overuse for years, calling on chicken producers to limit antibiotics use to situations in which they must treat sick animals, and asking grocers and restaurants to support that policy. KFC is the latest in a succession of major restaurants that have decided to be part of the solution. Panera and Chipotle were early leaders in adopting responsible antibiotics practices. In recent years, Subway, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Papa John’s have all announced plans to improve antibiotic stewardship in their chicken supply chains.

In early 2016, NRDC joined a broad coalition of public interest organizations, including the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Consumers Union, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and many others, to urge KFC to adopt a strong policy limiting antibiotic use. NRDC also hatched an unusual spokesperson—er, spokes-bird—named Auntie Biotic, a wisecracking chicken who had taken a few too many antibiotics and wanted the world to know about it. With Auntie’s help, NRDC’s scientists and policy experts helped keep antibiotic resistance on KFC’s radar through social media, news reports, and a visit to the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

The effort also involved outspoken consumers who care about public health, animal welfare, and corporate responsibility. All told, NRDC and its partners helped unite more than 475,000 people—online and on the street—to show their support for antibiotic stewardship and urge KFC to get its chickens off drugs.

And the company did. Thank you, KFC, for doing your part to keep antibiotics working for current and future generations.

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