Majority of Fast Food Restaurants Get Fail Rating in Antibiotics Meat Report

Story at-a-glance -

  • Chipotle’s and Panera Bread were the only fast food chains that earned “A” ratings; they are the only two that transparently affirm the majority of the meats served come from antibiotic-free producers
  • Most fast food restaurants are still serving meat and poultry raised on antibiotics, despite the known health risks. Of the 25 restaurant chains included in the report, 20 received a “Failing” score
  • The US uses nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics each year to raise food animals. This accounts for about 80 percent of all antibiotics used; nearly 70 percent of which are medically important for humans

By Dr. Mercola

Antibiotic resistance has been declared "an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society" by the World Health Organization (WHO).1

The cause for this growing drug resistance was once thought to be restricted to overuse of antibiotics in medicine, but it's become quite clear that our food supply significantly contributes to the problem.

In fact, it may even be the overriding factor that has allowed, and continues to allow, resistance to grow and spread at the rate that it is.

In the US, animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are routinely fed low doses of antibiotics to make them grow fatter, faster, and to prevent disease associated with crowded and unsanitary living conditions.

The US uses nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics each year to raise food animals.2,3 This accounts for about 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the US,4 and nearly 70 percent of these antibiotics are considered "medically important" for humans.5

Globally, antibiotic use in both medicine and agriculture rose by 30 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to newly released data from the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy.6

Along with it, antibiotic resistance has shot up as well. On a positive note, in countries that have implemented regulations to curb the use of antibiotics, certain drug resistant infections have dramatically dropped.

No matter where you live, what farmers are saving on the front end by using antibiotics instead of costlier alternatives (such as using essential oils,7 and feeding them a higher quality species-appropriate diet), consumers pay for on the back end, via exorbitant health care costs and lives cut short.

In the US alone, the price tag for antibiotic resistance is $20 billion in additional annual health care costs,8 and an estimated 23,000 Americans die from antibiotic-resistant infections each year.

Fast Food Restaurants Show Few Signs of Change

Efforts have been made to curtail the use of antibiotics in meat production, but so far, the industry is falling far short of making a dent in the situation.

According to a new report9,10,11 "Chain Reaction: How Restaurants Rate on Reducing the Use of Antibiotics in Their Meat Supply," produced by six consumer interest, public health, and environmental organizations, most fast food restaurants are still serving meat and poultry raised on antibiotics.

Most also lack a publicly available policy to limit the use of such meats. Of the 25 restaurant chains included in the report, the following 20 received a "Failing" score: 

Subway Starbucks KFC Domino's Pizza
Wendy's Burger King Denny's Olive Garden
Papa John's Taco Bell Pizza Hut Applebee's
Sonic Chili's Jack in the Box Arby's
Dairy Queen IHOP Outback Little Caesars
Click here to learn moreClick here to learn more

Only Two Fast Food Restaurants Earned an 'A' Grade

Chipotle's and Panera Bread both earned "A" ratings. According to the report, they are the only two fast food restaurants that publicly affirm the majority of the meats served come from antibiotic-free producers.

One-third of Panera's turkey and 100 percent of its pork and chicken is antibiotic-free. The company is also reviewing its policy for beef, although its primary beef supplier does not use antibiotics, and its secondary supplier uses antibiotics for medical necessity only.

Chipotle's policy prohibits routine use of antibiotics, and the company states this policy applies to at least 90 percent of all meats served. As for the remaining three restaurants, the report notes that:

"Chick-fil-A and McDonald's have established policies limiting antibiotic use in their chicken with implementation timelines, while Dunkin' Donuts has a policy covering all meats but has no reported timeline for implementation."

One in four Americans eats some type of fast food on a daily basis,12 and nearly half of the money Americans spend on food is spent on restaurant meals.13

When you consider that, it's easy to see that this widespread resistance among restaurants to reduce antibiotics in their meat supply chains can have a significant impact on mounting drug resistance, and take an increasing toll on human health.

It's been estimated that some two million Americans are infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria each year. In addition to hard-to-treat infections, overexposure to antibiotics has also been implicated as a factor that can raise your risk of developing diabetes in subsequent years.14

This Can Have Significant Influence on Agricultural Practices

It's important to realize that every time you eat meat from animals raised on antibiotics, you're getting a small dose that, over time with regular consumption, can upset your gut flora and have a notable impact on your weight and metabolism15 — and that's over and above the issue of antibiotic resistance.

As noted in the Chain Reaction report:16

"When livestock producers administer antibiotics routinely to their flocks and herds, bacteria can develop resistance, thrive, and even spread to our communities, contributing to the larger problem of antibiotic resistance.

The worsening epidemic of resistance means that antibiotics may not work when we need them most: when our kids contract a staph infection (MRSA), or our parents get a life-threatening pneumonia...

Most top US chain restaurants have so far failed to effectively respond to this growing public health threat by publicly adopting policies restricting routine antibiotic use by their meat suppliers...

Restaurant companies should also encourage producers to improve animal diets and management practices within their facilities, as this reduces the reliance on routine drug use for disease prevention."

Why Eating Antibiotic-Free Meat Matters

The vast majority of meat and animal products such as dairy and eggs sold in the US — both in grocery stores and restaurants — come from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The way in which these animals are fed and raised significantly alters and diminishes the quality of the food. The use of antibiotics just makes a bad situation worse, by promoting drug resistance on top of inferior nutrition.

In 2011, researchers found about half of all meats and poultry sold in grocery stores were contaminated with drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the bacteria that causes most staph infections. Now, a new Consumer Report study17,18,19,20,21,22 warns that all store-bought ground beef contains fecal bacteria, and factory farmed beef often contains dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria as well.

Consumer Reports purchased 300 packages of ground beef from 103 stores in 26 cities across the US. The beef samples (181 conventionally raised, 116 more sustainably produced, including organic grass-fed) were analyzed for the presence of five types of disease-causing bacteria. The samples were also put through secondary testing to ascertain whether the bacteria were resistant to antibiotics used in human medicine.

Their results showed that:

  • 100 percent of all ground beef samples contained bacteria associated with fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli). In humans, these bacteria can cause blood or urinary tract infections
  • Nearly 20 percent contained Clostridium perfringens, a bacteria responsible for an estimated one million cases of food poisoning each year in the US
  • 10 percent contained a toxin-producing strain of Staphylococcus aureus, which cannot be destroyed even with thorough cooking 
  • One percent contained salmonella, which is responsible for an estimated 1.2 million illnesses and 450 deaths in the US each year
  • Three of the conventional samples had methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which kills nearly 19,000 people each year.23, 24 None of the sustainably raised beef samples contained MRSA

Grass-Fed and Organic Meats Pose Fewer Health Risks

Overall, Consumer Reports found that beef from animals raised in CAFOs was more likely to be contaminated with bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, compared to beef from sustainably raised animals. Eighteen percent of the CAFO ground beef samples contained antibiotic-resistant superbugs resistant to three or more antibiotics, compared to nine percent of sustainably produced beef, and just six percent of the grass-fed beef.  

According to Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports:25

"We know that sustainable methods are better for the environment and more humane to animals. But our tests also show that these methods can produce ground beef that poses fewer public health risks...This study is significant, because it's among the largest scientific studies to show that sustainable methods of raising cattle can produce cleaner and safer ground beef... We suggest that you choose what's labeled 'grass-fed organic beef' whenever you can..."

Do keep in mind, however, that even grass-fed beef is more prone to carry potentially hazardous bacteria than steaks, so always cook ground beef through and through. The reason why ground beef tends to be far more problematic than solid cuts of meat is because on a steak, the bacteria tend to remain on the surface of the meat. Once you cook it, most of the bacteria are destroyed.

When the meat is ground, any bacteria present on top of the meat get mixed throughout the meat, contaminating all of it. So if you like your hamburger on the rare side, the pathogens may still be alive and well in the center of the beef patty.

Another contributing factor is the fact that in the making of ground beef, meat from a number of animals is mixed together, and all you need is for one contaminated animal to affect a very large batch of meat. Moreover, there is a limited number of meat processing plants, so opportunity arises for cross contamination to occur as meat from various farms is run through the machinery.

Grass-Fed Beef Is Also Nutritionally Superior

Besides reducing the risk for bacterial overgrowth and antibiotic resistance, feeding animals a species-appropriate diet (which for cows means grazing on grass, opposed to grains laced with antibiotics) profoundly improves the nutritional quality of their meat. It also virtually eliminates toxins such as glyphosate and other pesticides, which is the other side of the healthy-diet equation.

In 2009, a joint research project between the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Clemson University determined the numerous ways grass-fed beef beats grain-fed beef for your health. In a side-by-side comparison, they determined that grass-fed beef was superior in the following ways:26

Higher in total omega-3s Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin
A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs. 4.84) Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium
Higher in CLA (cis-9 trans-11), a potential cancer fighter Higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)
Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA) Higher in beta-carotene

When shopping for beef, keep the following labels in mind to help you find high-quality products.27 And remember, your safest alternative is both organic and grass-fed.

100% USDA Organic label offers excellent assurance that antibiotics have not been used at any stage of production.
"No antibiotics administered" and similar labels also offer high assurance that antibiotics have not been used, especially if accompanied by a "USDA process Verified" shield.
"Grass-fed" label coupled with USDA Organic label means no antibiotics have been used, but if the "grass-fed" label appears alone, antibiotics may have been given.
"American Grass-fed" and "Food Alliance Grass-fed" labels indicate that in addition to having been raised on grass, the animal in question received no antibiotics. This is the best label of all but is in the early stages of development so you will likely not see it widely until next year.
The following three labels: "Antibiotic-free," "No antibiotic residues," and "No antibiotic growth promotants," have not been approved by the USDA and may be misleading if not outright fraudulent.
"Natural" or "All-Natural" is completely meaningless and has no bearing on whether or not the animal was raised according to organic principles. "Natural" meat and poultry products can by law receive antibiotics, hormones, and genetically engineered grains, and can be raised in CAFOs.

To Eat Well, Eat More Meals at Home

The foods you eat can be a major source of chronic low-dose exposure to antibiotics, and to protect your health you need to buy antibiotic-free, organically raised meat. Chipotle and Panera's appear to be doing a good job providing their customers with healthier meats, but your best long-term bet is to pick up a good cookbook and start cooking more of your own meals.

Connect with a local farmer that raises animals according to organic standards, allowing them to roam freely on pasture. Some grocery chains also offer 100 percent grass-fed meats these days, as do some small organic restaurants. Still, such eateries can be hard to come by, and for most people the best solution is to buy the meat, and cook it at home, along with other fresh (preferably organic) foods. In the US, the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods:

Weston Price Foundation28 has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.
Local Harvest – This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
Farmers' Markets – A national listing of farmers' markets.
Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals – The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) – CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
FoodRoutes – The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.