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Antibiotics in Burgers: Majority of U.S. Fast Food Chains Fail Annual Report Card

Christoph Schmidt / Picture Alliance / Getty Images

By Lena Brook

Less than two weeks ago, JBS USA, one of our country's largest meat processors, announced a high-risk recall of nearly 7 million pounds of its raw beef, over concerns it may be contaminated with Salmonella Newport. Nearly 60 patients in 16 states have so far been made sick. This recent outbreak of infections tied to contaminated ground beef is especially worrisome because S. Newport is a strain of Salmonella that has often been resistant to antibiotics. It may also be the largest beef recall in history for Salmonella.


Since Americans love their burgers, that means a lot of us may be at risk: Recent research suggests we eat three hamburgers a week, on average—nearly 50 billion burgers per year for the entire country. Fast food burger chains are some of the largest beef buyers in the U.S. (McDonald's is actually the biggest beef purchaser in the world). This buying power gives burger companies a singular ability to send a powerful message to beef producers: it's time to stop using medically important antibiotics routinely on animals that are not sick.

By continuing to use antibiotics routinely on farms, beef producers contribute to the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria like this type of Salmonella, which cause infections that are difficult or sometimes impossible to treat. In fact, more medically-important antibiotics are sold for use on cows than any other farm animal sector.

Which is why for this fourth annual edition of our Chain Reaction report and antibiotics scorecard, which grades fast food restaurants on their antibiotics policies and practices, NRDC and our allies decided to shine a spotlight on where much work remains: beef. This year, for the first time, we graded the top 25 burger restaurants in the U.S. And the results weren't pretty: all but 3 got an F.

Unfortunately, our report shows most burger companies aren't yet using their market influence to advance antibiotic stewardship. Of the top 25 burger restaurant chains in the U.S. only two leaders stand out: New York's beloved Shake Shack and Florida-based BurgerFi. These two companies source beef raised entirely without antibiotics. Given their growth and success in recent years, customers seem to be rewarding these companies for their good food policies.

Trailing behind these two new generation burger chains, Wendy's squeaked in with a "D-" because the company made a modest pledge last winter to reduce one antibiotic in a small portion of its beef supply. The remaining 22 chains—including giants like McDonald's and Burger King—received "F" grades because they lack any time-bound, publicly available policy to restrict antibiotic use in their beef supply chains.

The world's leading authorities on public health agree that ending the overuse of antibiotics in beef production and across all livestock sectors is critical to keeping these drugs working when sick people (and sick animals) need them. Indeed, the World Health Organization sounded this alarm in its 2017 guidelines on the use of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals, as have a dozen other medical groups.

Industry analysts advise that companies to stay ahead of consumer concerns, and consumers are worried about antibiotic use in meat. Chick-fil-A, McDonald's, Subway, KFC and over a dozen restaurant chains did exactly this when they adopted (and in many cases, implemented) meaningful restrictions on antibiotics in their chicken supplies in recent years.

Right now, many burger chains are putting burger lovers in a bind. If they want to eat meat raised with responsible antibiotic use practices, chicken is the best choice at many mainstream chains. But if we are to make headway on antibiotic resistance crisis, the beef (and pork) industry must be part of the solution.

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