Growing public health and consumer safety concerns about the overuse of antibiotics in food has sparked a wave of resistance, with both Subway and Kroger facing pressure this week to curb their reliance on antibiotics — which the companies say they use to promote growth and produce their meat efficiently.
Opposition to the excessive antibiotics use has arisen from the spread of antibiotic-resistant ‘superbug’ bacteria, which render infections that are normally treatable with antibiotics more severe and even deadly. Food contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one way in which ‘superbugs’ can be transmitted from farms to people.
A growing number of companies have recently responded to public concerns over excessive use of antibiotics in food-animal production. Chipotle, Chik-fil-A, McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Whole Foods and Walmart have adopted policies to restrict the excessive use of antibiotics in the meat that they sell. Major meat suppliers including Foster Farms, Perdue Foods and Tyson have also announced their intent to start phasing out the application of antibiotics that are medically important to humans.
This week, the spotlight turned on Subway and Kroger to follow suit. On June 23, nearly 60 public interest, medical, public health, environmental and animal welfare organizations delivered a letter to Subway founder and CEO Fred DeLuca and Senior VP Suzanne Greco, urging the chain to phase out meats produced with routine use of antibiotics.
This letter was sent after a subset of these groups — including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), U.S. PIRG, Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, Food Animals Concern Trust, and Center for Food Safety — sent a private note to the company asking it discuss the antibiotics use issue. Subway has not responded to that first communication.
“People are becoming increasingly aware of the health threat posed by the growing antibiotic resistance crisis. Companies like Subway have a critical role to play in safeguarding the effectiveness of tomorrow’s antibiotics by pushing their meat suppliers to end routine use of these drugs today,” said Lena Brook, food policy advocate with the NRDC. “Switching to meat and poultry raised without the routine use of antibiotics would be great news not only for Subway customers, but also anyone else who might need an antibiotic someday.”
Meanwhile, at Kroger’s annual shareholder meeting on Thursday, the supermarket chain faced pressure from investors to take stronger action on curbing antibiotic use. Environmentally responsible investment advisory firm Green Century Capital Management — which earlier this month teamed up with over a dozen CPG brands to pressure RSPO for stricter standards — filed a shareholder proposal urging the company to assess options for reducing antibiotic use to produce its private label meats.
“Food safety should be the top priority of any supermarket,” said Lucia von Reusner, Shareholder Advocate for Green Century. “As the threat to consumer safety from antibiotic-resistant bacteria becomes clear, Kroger faces major liabilities if it fails to keep pace with emerging expectations for the quality and safety of the meat it sells.”
The stakes are high: Each year, roughly 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to the Center for Disease Control.
And as the World Health Organization warns: “Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill.”