Expert Spotlight: 5 Questions with U.S. PIRG

Largely driven by consumer demand, many major food companies have committed to responsible antibiotic use policies — changes that will help address the antibiotic resistance crisis. Large institutional purchasers (e.g. restaurants, grocery stores, schools, hospitals, etc.) of meat and poultry can significantly impact antibiotic use policies in the meat industry. One group helping lead marketplace change is U.S. PIRG, an independent, non-partisan non-profit that works for consumers and the public interest to protect public health. U.S. PIRG has helped use market-based pressure to convince leading food companies such as McDonald’s, Subway and KFC to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics from their meat supply chains.

This summer U.S PIRG is increasing its public pressure encouraging McDonald’s to expand its U.S. chicken policy (which disallows the use of medically important antibiotics) to beef. We talked with Matt Wellington and Shelby Luce to learn more about their current activities to help drive change in the marketplace and ultimately fight antibiotic resistance.

1. We know U.S. PIRG is a large advocacy organization that works on many issues important to public health. Tell our readers more about U.S. PIRG’s efforts to stop the overuse of antibiotics in food animal production.

U.S. PIRG is a non-profit that works to protect our health, safety, and quality of life. We’re made up of trained organizers, advocates, and researchers, and we have a presence in more than half the states across the country. Our campaign to stop the overuse of antibiotics in food animal production kicked off five years ago and has a three-pronged strategy—convince major meat buyers to stop sourcing meat raised with routine antibiotic use, pass strong policy at the state and federal level to reduce antibiotic use, and mobilize health professionals to call for responsible antibiotic use in the food industry.

2. McDonald’s has made some great steps in recent years to address antibiotic use in the chicken they serve. Yet, U.S PIRG has been running a campaign targeting McDonald's called “Hold the Antibiotics.” Tell us more about this campaign.

Our primary focus is working to convince McDonald’s to eliminate routine antibiotic use throughout its entire meat supply chain. The company did it for chicken, which was a great step forward, but the beef and pork industries continue to misuse these life-saving medicines. The company has said they want to move toward beef raised without routine antibiotics, but it has not committed to a timeline for doing so. Our goal is to get McDonald’s to publicly release a time-bound commitment to phase routine antibiotic use out of its beef supply chain.

We’re mobilizing consumers to call on McDonald’s to Hold the Antibiotics across the U.S. Our citizen outreach staff have spoken to hundreds of thousands of people in eighteen states this summer. We’ve also reached 150 million people in the media calling on McDonald’s to act now.

3. What else do you think McDonald’s should be doing? Why should they lead?

In August 2017, McDonald’s released their Vision for Antibiotic Stewardship, which laid out their plans to change the sourcing of their meat. However, no timeline was attached to this. McDonald’s is the largest beef purchaser in the country. If McDonald’s were to use its tremendous purchasing power to make their vision for antibiotic stewardship a reality, they can help spark the kind of industry-wide change we need. McDonald’s is an iconic burger chain that is part of American pop-culture. It has the opportunity to use that influence to protect public health and preserve antibiotics for the future.

4. You’re delivering petition signatures and letters to McDonald’s across the country. What is the impact of this kind of strategy?

McDonald’s is a public facing brand. They’re vulnerable to consumer pressure and are struggling to stay relevant to the younger generation. Showing the company that consumers, especially young people, care deeply about whether it sources meat raised with the misuse of life-saving medicines can have a significant impact on its practices.

5. We’re really digging U.S. PIRGs new video series of physicians across the U.S. who are concerned about antibiotic resistance and our food system's role in this public health crisis. Tell our readers more about why you created this series.

U.S. PIRG recently launched the Health Professional Action Network video series, which includes interviews with some of the top physicians and infectious disease experts. The videos are a great way to educate the public and decision makers like McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook about the importance of cutting routine antibiotic use out of our food system. It’s important to convey, from credible sources like physicians who deal with antibiotic resistance on a day to day basis, what’s at stake and how our food system contributes to this major health threat.