Five Questions: Chain Reaction V

Five Questions with Meg BonnieL Associate Director Campaigns Consumer Reports

Oct. 31, 2019 marked the release of Chain Reaction V -- a report that ranks America’s 25 largest fast food and fast casual restaurants on their antibiotic use policies and practices in their meat and poultry supply chains. The report, first issued in 2015, was produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumer Reports, Center for Food Safety, Food Animal Concerns Trust, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and as a brand new author ARAC!

1. This is the fifth edition of the Chain Reaction report. What are the big takeaways from this year’s scorecard and what trends, if any, are we seeing?

This year's scorecard focuses on beef, and what we found is that most of the top restaurant chains are serving beef that was raised with the routine use of antibiotics. Chipotle and Panera earned grades in the “A” range for serving only beef raised without antibiotics. Four companies received passing grades because they have pledged to reduce at least some antibiotics in their beef supply chains - McDonald's, Subway, Taco Bell and Wendy's - but 15 other chains earned F's for not taking any action on antibiotics at all. But the story on chicken is much different. Over the course of the last five years we've seen incredible progress on chicken, with most of the major chains now serving chicken raised without the routine use of medically important antibiotics. Their action has helped drive down the use of antibiotics across the chicken industry, which is now a fraction of what it was five years ago.

2. We love that the main focus of the report is on antibiotic use in beef. We need more leadership in this space. Can you tell our readers why you chose beef as the protein of focus? Are there any standout leaders emerging? What actions are needed to produce meaningful change in this meat sector?

More antibiotics are used in beef production than any of the other meat sectors, so if we're truly going to tackle the overuse of these critical drugs, we've got to address how they're used with cattle. Now that so many of the top chains are serving chicken raised without medically important antibiotics, we're glad to see some restaurants begin to adopt similar policies for their beef. McDonalds' announcement this past December was truly a game changer for the industry - they've committed to reduce the use of medically important antibiotics use across their global beef supply chain and will be announcing reduction targets next year. Because of this commitment, the company jumped from an F last year to a C in this year's scorecard. Taco Bell and Wendy's have both taken smaller steps to reduce antibiotics use in portions of their beef supply chains, earning them a D and D+, respectively. But what we really need are comprehensive commitments from these major meat buyers to put more pressure on beef suppliers to stop squandering these vital medications on cows that aren’t sick.

3. We love that you added “superlatives” to this year’s report. Can you tell us how you chose what companies to highlight and why?

We wanted to draw attention to companies whose actions are particularly notable when it comes to antibiotics - including both leaders and laggards - so we gave out some special awards this year. McDonald's got the BIGGEST MOOVER award for pledging last December to curtail routine use of medically important antibiotics across it global supply chain in the coming years with reduction targets to be announced by the end of 2020. By contrast, we dubbed Wendy’s the BIGGEST WANNABE since they have made just a token effort to reduce the use of antibiotics in their beef supply chain. Chipotle and Panera were named EARLY LEADERS since they were the first two major chains to serve only meat, including beef, raised without antibiotics. Similarly, BurgerFi and Shake Shack got the BEST BURGER JOINT award for implementing the strongest antibiotics policies of any major burger chains.

4. Conversely to beef, lots of companies revived (received?) high marks when it comes to sourcing chicken raised without antibiotics. This is pretty amazing. Can you tell us more about what you think has spurred this remarkable progress?

It's true! The progress on chicken during the last five years has been pretty incredible. In 2015, the first year of Chain Reaction, only five companies out of the top 25 chains we evaluated had policies in place to limit antibiotic use in chicken. Fast forward to 2019, and 17 companies now have policies, with 13 of them serving only chicken raised without the routine use of antibiotics (and four still working on completing the transition). Restaurants began to realize that consumers increasingly care about where their food comes from and how it's produced, and started asking their suppliers for chicken raised without antibiotics. A few early commitments by massive buyers like Chick-fil-A and McDonald's began to really shift industry behavior, and from there, more restaurant chains started to follow suit. That change within the restaurant industry, combined with demand from consumers at the grocery store and by other institutions like hospitals and schools, transformed the practice of antibiotic use in chicken production. A recent industry study estimated that 92% of chicken sold in the U.S. is now raised without the use of medically important antibiotics. That's a huge shift and a victory for public health.

5. What’s next? Will there be a Chain Reaction VI?

We'll see! The Chain Reaction scorecard has been a really effective way to hold companies accountable and track progress over the five years of the project. We definitely want to keep the pressure on, especially when it comes to beef. The groups that produce Chain Reaction are already talking about next steps - so stay tuned in 2020!