Kari Hamerschlag is deputy director for Food and Technology at Friends of the Earth. You can hear more about Friends of the Earth’s work to change restaurant food in this recent Rootstock Radio interview.
Responding to growing consumer campaigns and investor pressure, some of America’s top restaurant chains—including Subway, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s—have begun addressing the public health threat of antibiotic resistance in their operations and supply chains. Twice as many companies as last year have adopted policies restricting antibiotics use by their suppliers, earning passing grades in the second annual “Chain Reaction” report, published today by Friends of the Earth and allies. However, other large chains, such as Olive Garden and its parent company, Darden, continue to drag their feet, promoting empty rhetoric rather than concrete change.
The important (though still inadequate) progress by leading restaurants fill a huge void left by weak guidance by the FDA that allows livestock producers to overuse and misuse antibiotics in ways that endanger public health. Leading scientific and health agencies including the WHO and CDC have declared antibiotic resistance a top health threat in the U.S. and have identified the rampant misuse of antibiotics in livestock production as a major cause. A stunning 70 percent of all antibiotics important in human medicine in the U.S. are used in animal agriculture. Despite clear evidence of harm, and decades of public pressure, the meat and pharmaceutical industries have continually thwarted effective legislation restricting the routine use of antibiotics in agriculture.
Against the backdrop of federal inaction, positive steps by a handful of leading restaurants show important progress. Yet, while McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell deserve praise for meaningful action on chicken (receiving “C” grades in our report), they must do more by rapidly moving beyond poultry to address the misuse of these lifesaving drugs in the nation's beef and pork supply. Only two chains, Panera and Chipotle, are leading the way in all meats, earning “A” grades in our report for ensuring that nearly all the beef, pork, and chicken in these outlets are raised without routine antibiotics.
Amid this progress, 16 of the top 25 chains surveyed, are still lagging badly—receiving F grades for inaction. Public outcry and action must focus on moving theses laggards.
Greenwashing alert: Olive Garden and Darden take the cake
One prominent laggard, Olive Garden—and its parent company, Darden Restaurants, the nation’s largest restaurant company—have used classic corporate greenwashing techniques to mask their inaction, using their adherence to weak FDA guidance to claim progress. On September 29, at Darden’s annual corporate meeting, shareholders and advocates have a chance to change that.
Thanks to a proposal submitted by the Green Century Funds, shareholders will vote at Darden’s annual meeting on whether the company should prohibit the routine use of antibiotics throughout its meat supply. This resolution comes after Darden failed to respond positively to a letter signed by a large coalition of investors that manage US$1.4 trillion in assets urging the firm to end the routine use of antibiotics important to human medicine in its global meat and poultry supply chains. A similar letter was sent to nine other leading restaurant companies.
Darden is also under pressure from more than 130,000 consumers and a dozen public interest groups who, as part of the Good Food Now! campaign, are urging the company to improve its labor and sourcing practices, including taking meaningful action on antibiotics.
In response, Darden is misleading its shareholders and the press with statements like this, contained in its official response to the shareholder resolution:
“Importantly, we believe this commitment and the FDA guidelines achieve the goals that are stated by the proponents: antibiotics important to human medicine will be eliminated from our meat supply chain for routine use without the oversight of a veterinarian before the end of 2016.”
This statement conveniently ignores the fact that while FDA Voluntary Guidance 213 restricts drug use for growth promotion it allows use for prevention of illness. So despite its feel-good words, Darden is signaling it is OK to feed animals daily doses of drugs to keep them alive in filthy, inhumane factory farm conditions, so long as a veterinarian says it’s OK. Adhering to the FDA’s approach will do little to stop the routine overuse of antibiotics, since most drugs have dual uses of growth promotion and sickness prevention.
Darden's misleading statement could hurt the chances for securing as high a vote as the recent similar shareholder proposal presented at McDonald’s 2016 annual meeting in May. That resolution garnered 26 percent shareholder support.
Instead of tangible change, Darden promotes meaningless rhetoric about its sustainability and sourcing practices for the more than 320 million meals it serves per year. In response to shareholders, the company states, “Our ingredients are carefully sourced from suppliers who share Darden’s commitment to maintaining best-in-class food safety, quality, sustainability and ethical business conduct.” Olive Garden similarly greenwashes its image online, repeatedly responding to customer concerns by insisting it provides “nutritious, high-quality and responsibly-sourced food.” Yet, there is nothing “responsible” or “high quality” about serving factory farmed meat and poultry that have been raised with daily doses of antibiotics.
While chicken producers like Perdue and Tyson are taking major steps to reduce antibiotic use, one of Darden’s chicken suppliers, Sanderson Farms, rejects well-documented science and refuses to acknowledge the problem of antibiotics overuse. As long as Darden continues to purchase meat from Sanderson Farms or other suppliers who refuse to shift away from routine antibiotics, it’s contributing to the problem.
Large restaurants that buy huge quantities of meat have the power and responsibility to dramatically improve animal welfare and management practices that would reduce the need for routine drugs. Regrettably, Darden and other leading chains like KFC are perpetuating an unsustainable factory farming system and a major public health crisis by putting profits and greed over public health and animal welfare. Their failure to act puts their companies, customers, animals, and shareholders at risk.
Take action to demand that Olive Garden and its parent company Darden to commit to a strong antibiotics policy.