The leading U.S. meat producers may appear to be under siege with all the continued buzz over plant-based protein companies, but there is some good news for the industry out there. Last week, Chick-fil-A announced that it had ceased sourcing chicken raised with antibiotics, joining the likes of Chipotle, KFC, McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Other large companies, including Darden and Costco, have also hopped aboard the antibiotics-free chicken train in recent years.
“This reflects a stunning antibiotics success story that has unfolded across the U.S. chicken industry in the last decade,” wrote Avinash Kar and Lena Brook of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
And unlike a lot of sustainability news we hear out there, this isn’t happening by 2020, nor will this undergo a long phasing out to meet some nebulous 2030 goal – for the most part this is done, done with a capital D. According to the NRDC, 92 percent of chicken sold across the U.S. was produced without antibiotics – at least those medicines deemed “medically important” by the federal government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The NRDC and other organizations have long opposed the use of antibiotics in livestock over concerns that they could lead to widespread resistance to such drugs. In the end, their public awareness campaigns and litigation have paid off.
Overall, antibiotics use within the food sector fell 73 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to the NRDC’s number crunching.
It’s been a long road for the NRDC. The NGO filed a lawsuit against the FDA in 2011 in a ploy to stop the use of antibiotics in animal feed. At the time, data suggested 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. were given to healthy livestock in order to get them to grow fast and fattened up for human consumption.
“We have to ensure these life-saving medicines continue to work when we need them most: when our families are ill,” the NRDC wrote in May 2011. “We need to stop wasting them on healthy animals so they remain effective for sick people.”
There is a lesson here for food companies, and not just about prioritizing antibiotics for humans. When consumers push back against a business practice they see as harmful, rather than pushing back in kind, perhaps listen to those concerns and sort out how you can make this change work. Your industry, and company, will benefit in the long run from having a better reputation. This leads us to other segments of the meat industry.
The NRDC has not given a pass to beef and pork producers, to be clear; the group infers that antibiotics use is still rampant across those food sectors – but there is still much to learn because critics say the industry so far has been far from transparent.
Image credit: Max Kleinen/Unsplash
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.