What can consumers do to save antibiotics?

There’s a rising tide of consumer awareness and concern about the way we use antibiotics in our food system, and restaurants like McDonald’s and Subway are taking notice. It’s not just restaurants though, even major poultry suppliers like Perdue Farms have taken steps away from routine antibiotic use. This is about consumer demand.

When McDonald’s made its commitment on antibiotics, former McDonald’s U.S. President Mike Andres said “Our customers want food that they feel great about eating — all the way from the farm to the restaurant — and these moves take a step toward better delivering on those expectations.” The phenomenon has been sweeping the marketplace. Adopting stronger, smarter policies on antibiotics is a path toward a food system that doesn’t endanger our health. Even though there’s been considerable progress, there is still a long way to go to eliminate all routine antibiotic use in meat production, and consumers have a vital role to play in changing the status quo.

1. Get the facts

The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one of the most dire, and least discussed, public health threats we face. According to the CDC, at least 2 million people in the U.S. are infected with antibiotic-resistant illnesses every year, and 23,000 die as a direct result. Worldwide, around 700,000 people are killed by antibiotic resistant infections annually, making it more deadly than second-hand smoke, and these numbers are expected to rise unless we take immediate action.

Antibiotics Field Director Matt Wellington distributes advocacy materials at the U.N. Summit on antibiotic resistance.

So what role does our food system play in this? Approximately seventy percent of medically important antibiotics sold for use in the U.S. are for poultry and livestock. The problem is not that there are literally antibiotics in the meat, but rather that routinely dosing food animals with antibiotics fuels the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can spread off the farm and into our communities. What’s even more concerning is that the drugs are typically given to animals that aren’t sick, usually on a routine basis, to fatten them up and to prevent disease that can be common in unsanitary conditions.

When antibiotics are used on a routine basis it decreases their effectiveness. What happens in many cases is that most of the bacteria are killed off from routine exposure to the antibiotics, but those that survive are able to resist the drugs. And now that the other bacteria are gone, there’s less competition and more opportunity for those resistant bugs to multiply rapidly and spread. A recent study shows this process happening right before our eyes, with a sample strain of bacteria becoming completely resistant to an antibiotic within two weeks.

2. Shop smart

Chipotle received an A+ on the 2016 Scorecard on Antibiotics Policies and Practices.

As consumers, we can alter the dynamic by being deliberate about what we’re buying, and where it comes from. Learn which brands and restaurants have made commitments to serving meat raised without routine antibiotics, and which brands still have room to grow. The National Resource Defense Council and other consumer groups have released their 2016 scorecard grading major restaurant chains on their antibiotics policies. So far, only Chipotle and Panera have received perfect scores from consumer watchdogs, but many chains have made significant progress from previous years.

When Perdue farms announced that it was committing to “No Antibiotics Ever,” Chairman Jim Perdue noted that it was a matter of consumer demand. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, he said, “I think we were taken aback by how big this became…McDonald’s announced, and then Subway announced…it’s like dominoes.” Coming from the head of a major industry honcho, that’s a big deal. It means that other people in the industry must be acknowledging the trend as well. People want meat raised without routine antibiotics — and this rising momentum is a reaction to consumer behavior. Let’s keep it going! By deliberately purchasing from restaurants and suppliers that are good on this issue, we reinforce that protecting antibiotics is something consumers weigh when deciding what to buy.

3. Speak out

Brands will spend billions on market research trying to figure out how to make products more attractive to consumers — why not make it easy for them? Let brands know that consumers want meat raised without routine antibiotics. Sign our letter to the failing restaurants on the 2016 antibiotics scorecard, and Tell KFC CEO Roger Eaton to put our health first and stop lagging behind on implementing responsible antibiotic policies. Most of all, tell your friends! By educating others, you’re compounding your influence, and that’s an important step towards raising the profile of this issue. With antibiotic resistance gaining steam in the national spotlight, we need as many people as possible to know that they have incredible power to shape the marketplace, but only if we act together. Take action now — let’s protect our lifesaving medicines, and get routine antibiotic use out of our food supply.

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