When images of California come to mind, icons often include the Golden Gate Bridge, Hollywood, Yosemite, and the red, white and yellow In-N-Out sign.
Dating back to 1948 with its first burger stand in Baldwin Park, its small menu of made-to-order burgers and fries has long fostered a cult following. Los Angeles traffic, the hideous drive along I-5, or a nightmarish politically-correct vegan meal in Berkeley can be forgotten thanks to a few moments of decadence at one of its stark white restaurants. Once inside, customers can order from its long-adored secret menu, going crazy as they request a Flying Dutchman-Animal Style-3x3 or 4x4 burger, protein style or mustard grilled, or all of the above.
But not everyone has been enamored with In-N-Out, because unless you order a “wish burger” (as in, wish there were meat, or just veggies between the bun), the company has long sourced its beef from suppliers that regularly use antibiotics. Many environmental advocacy groups, including Friends of the Earth, urged the $575 million chain with 300-plus locations to commit to a transition away from beef that had been injected with antibiotics.
Such a letter to that effect, signed by more than 50 groups, was delivered last week to In-N-Out’s headquarters in Irvine, California. The company, privately owned and one to disclose little information publicly, had long resisted such requests, but it suddenly changed its policy this week. In a recent announcement that was picked up by many trade publications, the company replied to a Reuters reporter’s question about this matter by saying it would cease sourcing beef “that is not raised with antibiotics important to human medicine.”
So far, some groups that are part of this coalition have reacted optimistically. "In-N-Out is known for its high-quality, fresh ingredients,” said Jason Pfeifle, a public health advocate with the CALPIRG Education Fund, one of the consumer advocacy groups that urged the company to change its beef-sourcing practices. “It's good to see the company living up to that reputation with its recent antibiotics commitment. With a clear timeline, this commitment can help move the beef industry to do the right thing for public health."
In-N-Out’s shift will increase pressure on its competitors in the fast food industry, many of which received failing grades from a study last fall that evaluated the use of antibiotics within many of these companies’ supply chains.
Only Chipotle and Panera Bread were given an "A" by this coalition that included Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Food Safety. McDonald’s claims that it enacted a policy related to the use of antibiotics in food since 2003 and has pledged to not use chicken raised with antibiotics. Wendy’s claims that the “appropriate use of antibiotics” has long been a policy, while Burger King does not publicly broach the subject at all — hence both companies were dinged with failing grades. In the wake of that report, “F”-earning Subway has promised to eliminate any meat treated with antibiotics from its restaurants.
How far In-N-Out will take this more sustainable beef policy presents a huge question mark. "We are currently asking In-N-out Burger to provide a sustainable, humanely raised, grass-fed alternative on the menu as the best way forward for moving quickly to implement this policy,” said Kari Hamerschlag, Friends of the Earth’s food and technology program senior manager. “If In-N-Out follows through on its commitment, this is a big win for public health that will force significant change in in its supply chain on the West Coast, particularly among mega feedlot suppliers like Harris Ranch that will need to focus on improving conditions in order to prevent the animals from getting sick in the absence of routine antibiotics."
For In-N-Out to embrace that quality of beef for its hamburgers would mean higher prices, risking its popularity with clientele. Chipotle, for example, sources grass-fed beef, but some of it comes from Australia, which has earned it more than a few barbs from the blogosphere. Nevertheless, Americans’ eating habits, and demands, are changing. With its devoted following, In-N-Out has an opportunity to upend the fast food industry’s way of doing business, and it could even earn more fans, or should we say, fanatics, in the long term.
Image credit: Flickr (Divya Thakur)
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.