Only two of the top 25 burger chains by sales in the U.S. sell antibiotic-free beef, according to a Chain Reaction scorecard released by six consumer and environmental groups. Shake Shack and BurgerFi passed with flying colors, while every other chain but Wendy’s — including McDonald's — earned an F for taking no steps to phase out antibiotics or for lacking a clear strategy to achieve stated goals. Only seven companies returned completed surveys.
The fourth annual scorecard graded each company on the existence, breadth and execution of policies to eliminate antibiotics in their beef supply, as well as the validity of their claims. Last year’s report evaluated the 25 largest U.S. chain restaurants on overall meat supply, including poultry, where antibiotic-free options have gained more traction in recent years. The report also cites CDC research that has pointed to antibiotic resistance stemming from the overuse of human medicine in animal production.
Shake Shack and Wendy’s also won points for working with suppliers who use a third-party to verify their antibiotic practices. "They are being rewarded for the good food that they are serving and the good practices that stand behind that food, and serving responsibly raised beef is a part of that new business model," said lead researcher Lena Brook, interim director of the food and agriculture program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told CNN.
Antibiotic-free meat has become increasingly top of mind for American consumers, as part of a broader push for more natural, nutritious food delivered in a transparent way. This report illuminates the reality that decades-old chains are struggling to catch up to evolving consumer expectations and scientific research. Completely transforming meat production will take time, money, resources and regulation.
Poultry has held the antibiotic-free spotlight since the Chain Reaction scorecard debuted in 2015, when only five restaurants had any antibiotic policies on the books. By 2017, only seven were still ignoring the issue. Tyson, Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride have all pledged to eliminate most antibiotics from their production. When the largest producers step on board, an antibiotic-limited future becomes inevitable — even if some companies, like Darden Restaurants, are holding out.
Beef and pork have been slower to adapt, but studies show that people want the same from their burgers, steaks and sausages as they do from their chicken nuggets. Consumer Reports, one of the study’s collaborators, has also found that 60% of consumers are willing to pay more for an antibiotic-free burger and half agree that meat producers should stop giving antibiotics to animals that aren’t sick.
FDA policies have also shifted in recent years, confusing producers and perhaps permitting too many exceptions. Under the FDA’s 2013 plan, producers could still freely apply antibiotics as a preventive measure, a common practice in crowded cattle and chicken facilities. The government released new guidelines in September that within five years all antibiotic use will be brought under veterinary supervision, a longtime goal of health advocates.
In last year’s report of the 25 largest chain restaurants, only Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread earned A’s for their comprehensive approach to keeping chicken, beef and pork free of antibiotics. Subway, Chick-fil-A, KFC and Taco Bell received B’s for having strategic plans, but the remaining 19 faltered for lacking clear strategies or commitments, especially for beef and pork.
While transitioning away from meat raised with antibiotics can be a heavy lift for legacy chains, younger restaurants have the advantage of building their business from the ground up with current demands at top of mind. Shake Shack and BurgerFi, founded in 2004 and 2011 respectively, made high-quality beef not only a priority but a benchmark of their brands from the get-go — BurgerFi was so thrilled by its report card that the badge already adorns its website. Now, established burger giants from McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King to Steak’n’Shake, Culver’s and In’N’Out, are trying to keep up with more sophisticated consumers.