Within five years, Chick-fil-A plans to serve only chicken raised without antibiotics in its 1,800 restaurants nationwide—in response to consumer demand for greater transparency in food production and safety. There are several restaurants and chicken processing companies that are responding to consumer skepticism about treating all chickens, healthy or not, with antibiotics.
Pew Health Initiatives estimates 80 percent of antibiotics use in this country is for meat and poultry. A staggering 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold in 2011 for meat and poultry production, increasing the risk of bacteria with resistance to antibiotics. Public concern about the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock and its impact on dangerous bacteria is mounting and fueling the demand for alternatives.
"The Chick-fil-A move does signal an important market change in responding to what consumers have been demanding for some time—that we stop feeding healthy animals daily antibiotics," said Urvashi Rangan, director of the food safety and sustainability group at Consumer Reports.
Although this is an important step, Chick-fil-A is not the first national chain restaurant to undertake such an initiative. Both Chipotle and Panera Bread have been serving antibiotic-free meat for more than a decade and were pioneers in the movement. Chipotle even went a step further by requiring suppliers to comply with "humane housing standards for chickens."
“Chick-fil-A’s announcement to serve chicken raised without antibiotics in five years is a bold first step," said Janice Neitzel, principal of Sustainable Solutions Group, an organization that guides companies in responsible sourcing of animal proteins. "To do this right, they’ll want to ensure no antimicrobials are used to prevent disease, but only used when medically necessary to treat disease. At the same time, Chick-fil-A should look at issues of animal husbandry and genetics as next steps.These are important issues which Sustainable Solutions Group understands."
Modern boiler chickens have been over-selected for rapid growth, resulting in genetic bone issues including twisted and contorted feet and legs. This can result in chronic pain, explained Neitzel in an interview with Triple Pundit. Animal welfare policies and sourcing guidelines can target these issues.
"The more people are raising the bar, the more the food chain will shift, and the more consumers will become knowledgeable about issues surrounding food production and why these things matter," said Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman. Serving antibiotic-free meat is raising the bar, but additional issues exist that would reduce the need for antibiotic use, such as cleaner and roomier living conditions for industrial chicken producers, Rangan added.
Serving antibiotic-free protein does create sourcing challenges, as demand outstrips supply of such products from the producers. Some of the first restaurant chains were driven by carefully listening to customers. "When we began to serve meat raised without antibiotics, we were driven by two things: taste and a belief in simpler, cleaner ingredients," said Scott Davis, Panera's chief concept officer. "At the beginning, there wasn't a national supply available, but our customers pushed us to continue the journey."
Chicken producers, including Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms have been joining the trend, with the creation of antibiotic-free chicken brands. Tyson Foods recently introduced NatureRaised Farms and Perdue introduced Harvestland, both antibiotic-free product lines.
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Sarah Lozanova is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Green Building & Design, Triple Pundit, Urban Farm, and Solar Today. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.