By: Kerry Bazany

Many of us enjoy our fast food meals, whether it’s infrequent or not. Just as equally, many of us avoid eating too much fast food because of so many negative associations with its consumption: high fat and cholesterol, sodium, as well as sugar. As Americans become increasingly aware of the risks and pitfalls of the consumption of those delicious hamburgers, french fries, fried chicken, corn dogs: the list goes on, our attention has turned to yet another potential health risk. How safe is the meat we are putting into our mouths?

Of the top 25 fast food chains, several restaurants have significantly reduced their usage of antibiotics. Chipotle and Panera top the list, scoring an “A” because of their commitment to limiting and eventually eliminating the use of antibiotics in not just chicken, but beef and pork as well. This “A” grade is generated by “Chain Reaction III: How Top Restaurants Rate on Reducing Use of Antibiotics in Their Meat Supply”, produced by Friends of the Earth, National Resources Defense Council, Center for Food Safety, Food Animal Concerns Trust, US Public Interest Research Group, and Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports.

Kudos to The Restaurants who are Concerned About Customer Safety

As mentioned, Chipotle and Panera Bread have made significant improvements in their elimination of chicken, pork, and beef that are prepared with antibiotics. That is the primary reason why they were issued an “A” grade. Unfortunately, the availability of “no antibiotic” beef and pork is very limited, according to the Chain Reaction report. According to the authors of this report, remarkable progress has been made to reduce or even eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics, (but) this progress has largely occurred in chicken production”(Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015). Applause is justified for Chipotle and Panera in going above and beyond when it comes to their customers.  KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) deserves an honorable mention here as well. KFC was “most improved”, having jumped from an “F” last year to a “B-“ after committing to phase “medically important “ antibiotics out of its chicken supply by the end of 2018.  Antibiotics are considered “medically important” for their use in humans, per the World Health Organization.

Medically Important Antibiotics Defined

Antimicrobial drugs include all drugs that work against a variety of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. An antibiotic drug is effective against bacteria.  Antimicrobial resistance, commonly called AMR, is when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites become resistant to the drugs typically used to treat people infected by them. The drugs, which previously would have cured people of an infection, are no longer effective in killing the microbes. These resistant infections are often called superbugs. Antimicrobial resistance is when bacteria or other microbes become resistant to the effects of a drug after being exposed to it. This means that the drug, and similar drugs, will no longer be effective against those microbes.

To effectively define what is meant by “medically important antibiotics”, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has delineated that such classification of antibiotics are needed to treat people, and cannot be legally given to otherwise healthy animals. When animals get antibiotics, often in their food or drinking water, the drugs may kill a number of bacteria. But a handful might harbor a gene that makes them resistant to drugs. Those bacteria may survive, multiply and spread. However, in an effort to combat the unsanitary conditions that exist in mass producing beef, pork, and chicken, antibiotics have been routinely administered to cows, pigs and chicken. However, as with all altruistic efforts to produce quality meat grown in less than ideal conditions that breed bacterial growth, there comes a definitive downside. The routine injection of such antibiotics into otherwise healthy animals may result in antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria that would directly translate to the human population. For example, childbirth and procedures, such as cesarean sections, organ transplants, wound treatments, and other forms of surgery would inevitably become high risk as doctors lose access to antimicrobials that would otherwise protect patients from operation-related infection. The CDC estimates that at least two million Americans contract antibiotic resistant infections every year, and that 23,000 die as a result of this.

So, We REALLY Don’t Need Extra Antibiotics in Our Fast Food

Given the aforementioned statistics, it is critical that we, as consumers, judiciously select fast food providers that select only meat that is free from the addition of antibiotics. The reasons are imperative in terms of our present and future safety against the real possibility of the production of “superbugs”: those strains of bacteria that are resistant to the intervention of the very antibiotics that are now effective in treating the infections that arise during surgical procedures, and even with the common ear and throat infections. As consumer demand for safely produced meat continues to rise, we can expect more positive results from our favorite fast food chain restaurants in terms of the meat we consume.