Pressure builds on burger chains over antibiotics

A report gave failing grades to all but three major burger concepts, including McDonald’s and Burger King.
Photograph courtesy of McDonald's

All but three of 25 burger chains received failing grades in a report card analyzing the antibiotic use in their meat sources, in the latest bit of public pressure from consumer groups over restaurant industry sourcing.

The “Chain Reaction” report, authored by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and co-authored by several public interest groups such as Consumers Union, the National Resources Defense Council and others, found that most companies lack “meaningful policies” on antibiotic use in their beef supply chains.

Of the 25 burger chains the groups analyzed, only Shake Shack and BurgerFi, two fast-casual burger concepts, received “A” grades for sourcing beef raised without antibiotics. Wendy’s, meanwhile, received a “D-minus” for sourcing 15% of its beef from a producer that has cut one medically important antibiotic by 20%.

The remaining chains—McDonald’s, Burger King, Sonic, Jack in the Box, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s, Culver’s, Five Guys, Whataburger, In-N-Out Burger, Checkers and Rally’s, Krystal, Smashburger, Freddy’s, A&W, The Habit Burger, Fuddruckers, Steak ‘n Shake, Jack's and Farmer Boys—all received failing grades “for lacking any announced policy to source beef raised without the routine use of antibiotics.”

The use of human antibiotics in livestock is increasingly controversial. Farmers have long used antibiotics to promote growth, but there are mounting concerns that such practices increase the incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Consumer and public health groups have been pressuring restaurant chains for years to start sourcing from suppliers that don’t use antibiotics. They argue that 70% of medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to food-producing animals, and 43% of that goes to the beef industry.  

The groups argue that consumers prefer beef raised without antibiotics, citing a Consumer Reports survey that found 60% of consumers are willing to pay more for a burger made from beef raised without antibiotics.

McDonald’s, by far the largest burger chain and largest restaurant chain, argues that it has been working toward reducing antibiotics. It has already started using antibiotic-free chicken in its U.S. restaurants and is working on a policy for beef.

 “Preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics for future generations is highly important to McDonald’s,” the company said in a statement. “McDonald’s is currently finalizing a global antibiotics plan for beef, to begin rollout before the end of 2018.”

BurgerFi has been touting its use of antibiotic-free beef and recently used a “Burgers for Every 1” campaign that was inspired by the fact that just 1% of U.S. beef meets the company’s quality standards.

“BurgerFi’s brand ethos from the beginning has always been that of being naturally better with authentic ingredients for everyone,” BurgerFi CEO Corey Winograd said in a statement.

The fourth annual Chain Reaction report noted that In-N-Out in 2016 publicly said it planned to source beef raised without antibiotics but has yet to follow through.

Three chains—Steak ‘n Snake, Farmer Boys and Fuddruckers—each earned failing grades for having no antibiotics policy, but, according to the report, they each have a burger made with antibiotic-free beef.

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