Investors push restaurant chains to cut antibiotics in meat supply

Beef cattle in barn
Beef cattle in barn

Compassion in World Farming / Flickr cc

A new report from a global coalition of investors suggests the world's largest fast food and casual dining companies are getting the message about their role in addressing antibiotic resistance.

Three years after it began asking companies to establish a comprehensive antibiotics policy to phase out routine use of antibiotics in livestock, poultry, and seafood supply chains and provide clear targets and timelines, the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (FAIRR) coalition says 17 out of 20 companies now have publicly available policies, while 2 have internal policies and 1 is developing a policy. In addition, 13 of the 20 companies are now focused on reducing or prohibiting routine use of either all antibiotics or medically important antibiotics in their supply chains.

The FAIRR coalition, which includes 74 institutional investors that manage nearly $5 trillion in combined assets, first began engaging with companies in 2016, when it sent letters to 10 of the largest publicly listed companies in the fast food and casual dining sectors following a review that found the companies were not acknowledging their role in addressing antibiotic resistance. Ten more publicly listed companies were targeted in 2017. By 2018, all targeted companies had recognized the need to limit antibiotic use in their supply chains.

"Company awareness and recognition of the impacts associated with the overuse of antibiotics in farmed animals has increased significantly since the start of the engagement," the report states. "Today, all companies in the engagement recognise the need to address antibiotics resistance and either have a policy in place or will be shortly announcing one."

The companies, 13 of which are based in the United States and 7 in the United Kingdom, include McDonald's, Wendy's, Yum! Brands, and Papa John's International.

Investors join consumers in call for change

The FAIRR coalition represents another force pushing for changes in how antibiotics are used in food-producing animals. The World Health Organization (WHO), which estimates that antibiotics purchased for use in food-producing animals account for as much 80% of all antibiotics sold in some countries, has called for an end to routine use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in livestock and poultry.

To date, more than 60 countries have responded to that recommendation by limiting antibiotics for growth promotion. But the use of medically important antibiotics for disease prevention in herds and flocks is still widespread, and experts in antibiotic resistance and infectious diseases are concerned that this routine use is accelerating the emergence of drug-resistant pathogens.

As the public has become more aware of the public health threat posed by antibiotic resistance and the role played by the overuse of antibiotics in food-animal production, consumer demand for meat raised without the use of antibiotics has grown. The biggest changes have been seen in the poultry industry, with several major restaurant chains in recent years committing to selling only chicken raised without the use of medically important antibiotics.

Changes in the beef industry have been slower. But in December 2018, McDonald's announced it would work with beef suppliers in 10 countries to set targets for reducing medically antibiotic use in its beef supply chain.

Recognizing that this consumer shift, along with growing government regulation, could pose greater financial risks for companies that buy meat from suppliers who use antibiotics routinely to maintain the health of their animals, investors are now making their voices heard to get these companies to change their practices.

Gail Hansen, DVM, a veterinary and public health consultant who was not involved in the report, says the efforts by the FAIRR coalition show that the investor community understands that this kind of financial pressure is hard for companies to ignore.

"They've realized that investors, and the power of the pocketbook, are going to make as much of a difference as whatever specific countries say you can and can't do," Hansen told CIDRAP News. "If investors and consumers and purchasers are saying 'this is what we're committing to do,' then it becomes a whole new set of rules, and producers will be more likely to actually make changes that are going to be lasting changes."

Hansen explained that if large multinational companies like McDonald's start demanding that their meat suppliers change their methods of raising animals, farmers and ranchers are going to have to respond, and may have an easier time getting the loans they need to modify their operations. "Bankers will be much more interested in lending that money so that farmers and ranchers can make those changes," she said.

Faster movement on the issue is needed, the FAIRR report argues, because as global incomes rise and demand for meat increases, more countries are going to adopt intensive farming methods that rely on routine antibiotic use. Globally, antibiotic consumption in food-producing animals is projected to rise 67% by 2030.

Lack of transparency

The report also notes that, despite the increased engagement of the 20 companies, transparency on the implementation of antibiotic-use policies is lacking, with poor disclosure on timelines, current antibiotic use, and auditing practices. Only seven companies have established clear, time-bound commitments for phasing out antibiotic use in their supply chains, and only two are reporting and disclosing current antibiotic use.

In addition, most of the companies haven't addressed antibiotic use across all the animal species that they source from suppliers. The only company that has stated a clear, time-bound commitment to transitioning its entire supply chain to antibiotic-free is the Cheesecake Factory, which received FAIRR's highest engagement score.

Hansen says the limited transparency suggests that the FAIRR coalition will need to keep monitoring these companies to ensure they're living up to their promises, and let the public know when the companies aren't following through.

"It can be really easy for a company to say that they'll make changes and have them ready in 3 years, and then in 3 years nothing has changed," she said. "The thing that investors can do…is help make that known."

See also:

May 20 FAIRR engagement progress report

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