Burger King, the fourth largest fast food chain in the U.S. (by dollar sales), has announced plans to remove antibiotics from its chicken supply in 2017, and in Canada in 2018.
Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King and smaller chain Tim Horton’s, made the announcement late last year, citing (human) health concerns as its main motivation for the decision. It’s a move most other fast food industry leaders and Burger King competitors have already pledged.
“We believe that it is important to reduce the use of antibiotics important for human medicine in order to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics in both veterinary and human medicine,” Restaurant Brands International said in a statement.
But according to the Natural Resource Defense Council, Burger King’s announcement is misleading.
“This is a small step that is much less meaningful for humankind than Burger King would have you believe,” David Wallinga, MD, a physician and Senior Health Officer at the NRDC said in a statement. “We’re disappointed Burger King didn’t take at least as much action as competitors McDonald’s or Subway to show it’s serious about helping to keep our lifesaving drugs working when people, including their customers, need them. The fast food industry is moving away from routine antibiotic use in their chicken supply and the chains that drag their feet will continue to fall behind.”
The organization points out that Burger King’s pledge only applies to three classes of antibiotics considered critically important, two of which have already been phased out of livestock production, a move the NRDC calls “a near meaningless change over business as usual.”
The use of antibiotics in livestock production is highly controversial because of the link to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. Medically important antibiotics are now staples in the food industry; it’s estimated that the livestock industry uses as much as 70 percent of the nation’s antibiotic supply every year.
These drugs are used in efforts to combat infections common in livestock industry factory farm settings where animals frequently face contagious diseases and illnesses as well as fighting, injury, and other risk factors that put the animals’ health at risk.
But antibiotic use became an industry-wide practice because of their ability to rapidly increase animals’ weight, pushing up slaughter dates and increasing profits.
Public health efforts, including warnings from the World Health Organization, have led to widespread commitments from major food companies to source antibiotic-free animal products.
Overuse of antibiotics has been linked to the spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria, causing infections in humans that don’t respond to common antibiotics, including stronger drugs considered last resort antibiotics, used when infections don’t respond to less aggressive drugs. A recent study found bacterial strains on a U.S. pig farm resistant to last-resort antibiotic drugs.
According to Reuters, only KFC (Yum Brands), is the last major chicken chain not to make a commitment to curb its antibiotic use.
*This article was updated on January 3, 2017 to include a quote from the NRDC
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