Shareholders, activists pressure restaurants on antibiotic use in meat

Activism around the contentious issue of giving antibiotics to meat animals is moving from the farm to the plate by putting pressure on restaurant chains.

Last week, a coalition of 30 consumer and environmental groups pressed the cult California burger chain In-N-Out to change its antibiotics-related buying policy. At the same time, a shareholder group pushed McDonald’s to increase its antibiotic-free buying — and while the  measure did not pass, 30 percent of shareholders voted for it.

Both of those actions took place as the World Health Organization, charged with monitoring antibiotic resistance around the world, was changing its leadership — and as more than 200 researchers signed an open letter to the organization’s new director general, asking the WHO to “recognize industrial animal farming as a challenge for global health.”

The actions are a new boost for the issue of antibiotic use in agriculture, which has slipped from public notice with the departure of the Obama administration. Combatting antibiotic resistance was a priority for the Obama White House, which not only created a national strategy on resistance and named a council of presidential advisers, but also instituted the first federal controls on farm antibiotic use at the Food and Drug Administration.

Since those controls went into effect Jan. 1, the action has moved to the private sector. In February, for instance, Starbucks committed to buying poultry raised without routine antibiotic use, and in April, fried-chicken giant KFC did the same.

McDonald’s was two years ahead of KFC in committing to chicken raised without routine antibiotics use — that is, without growth promoters and without drugs given to healthy birds to prevent illness. At its annual meeting May 24, activists tried to move the company further, asking for a commitment that it would begin buying beef and pork raised without antibiotics — which would be a market-leading step, as McDonald’s is the single largest buyer of beef in the United States.

The measure failed. But it marks one of the highest-profile attempts yet to use shareholder influence on food companies to reduce antibiotic use and slow the emergence of antibiotic resistance. It’s an approach pioneered by the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return Initiative, which has assembled a coalition of 60 institutional investors, representing more than $2 trillion in investing power, to pressure fast-food chains to change their purchasing practices.

The letter delivered last week to privately held In-N-Out represents a similar attempt to put pressure on a restaurant chain’s buying. The coalition of groups, which included Consumers Union and Friends of the Earth and was led by the CALPIRG Education Fund, asked the company to honor a commitment it made more than a year ago to stop using beef raised with routine antibiotic use, and to set a hard timeline for reaching that goal.

Consumer and public health groups are putting pressure on restaurant chains because it’s a tactic that has been shown to work, Matt Wellington, US PIRG’s antibiotics program director, said in a phone interview.

Almost all the companies that have committed to foregoing meat raised with routine antibiotic use have done that because customers indicated it was important to them, he said. “Consumers are more conscious of this issue now, and there is real power in that consciousness,” Wellington said. “Health professionals, public health groups and customers looked at the FDA actions to reduce antibiotic use and said, ‘We need to do better.’ The changes we are seeing in the marketplace have come from that.”

Maryn McKenna is the author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil. She last wrote for FERN about how the Netherlands cut antibiotic use on farms. Her new book on antibiotics in agriculture will be published by National Geographic Books/Penguin Random House in 2017She writes regularly about antibiotics and agriculture for Ag Insider.