Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Chipotle, Panera and, most recently, Subway have made public pronouncements indicating their intentions to source their poultry and meat from producers who don’t use antibiotics. The promises usually involve some time in the future, or an extended phase-in period. These announcements usually follow some noise by activists, who are guilty of greatly simplifying the complex and multifaceted problem of antibiotic resistance. And when consumers hear about restaurant chains switching to only using poultry and meat raised without antibiotics, they might assume it means that antibiotics are contained in the poultry and meat being sold today by Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Chipotle, Panera and Subway. I usually hit the delete button as soon as I read about a corporation promising to do something in the future. After all, I am still waiting for those afternoon wine bars that Howard Shultz promised way back when would show up at my local Starbucks. My mode of operation finds it hard enough to cover what businesses are actually doing to have any time left over for their pie-in-the-sky talk. However, the plot does thicken every time one of these outfits makes some sort of an antibiotics-free pledge. Even if they could be held to their recent announcements in the future, what is that going to really mean? The activists contribute to the disinformation with their over-heated rhetoric, such as charging that “the current system breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” A couple of observations on that one: If we knew how to “breed antibiotic resistance,” would it not follow that we’d know how to stop it by now? And, second, unless the activists are totally ignorant — and we know they are not — it is no secret that the current system delivers meat and poultry that is antibiotic-free today. The current system recognizes the difference between animals being treated with antibiotics just as people are, at some point during their lifetime, and still managing to produce antibiotic-free meat and poultry. The chicken sandwich outlets now demanding antibiotic-free flocks are not being honest about their motives, or at least not very specific. They are making the change based on a perceived marketing need to keep up with their competition, not because they will be doing anything for food safety. That’s regrettable but par for the course. Forcing suppliers to change is one thing, but what share of the responsibility are these retail chicken shops going to take if diseases burn through poultry barns for want of antibiotics? FDA is tamping down on the use of antibiotics, especially those shared by humans and animals, but not advocating wholesale withdrawals. But are the other chicken shacks saying — like McDonalds — that they will purchase only chickens raised without antibiotics important to human medicine? Are any of these companies saying that they will ban their chicken producers from all antibiotics including ionophores, which are the go-to solution when parasitic diseases threaten to wipe out a poultry barn? Oh, and I like this little detail — ionophores are defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an antibiotic. However, in the European Union, ionophores are defined as anticoccidials. The devil is always in the details. I am often asked if antibiotic resistance is a serious problem. I always say that when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that 2 million Americans are sickened and 23,000 die annually, damn right it is serious. But when asked what people should do, I say if at all possible, stay out of hospitals. We probably all have a relative who checked into hospital for something else and ended up with C. diff. But be sorry about eating a chicken sandwich? No reason to. Retail chicken businesses are easy targets for the activists in these times when digital petitioning has taken its place alongside the pen-and-paper kind. We are in a new petition era because of the Internet. If you don’t have your own, you can go to online petition sites such as Change.org and Care2 Petitions. The White House has its “We the People” site to create the illusion that it cares what the public thinks. The White House even offers a response for petitions that reach a certain signature threshold. It’s become apparent to me that government and businesses have set far different thresholds for determining what numbers are important when it comes to petitions. By their very nature, businesses in a free economy are constantly reacting to market demands. So, it should come as no surprise that businesses are susceptible to organized pressure. The reason I say that businesses are an easy target is because they frequently give in to their critics over a number so low that your typical Washington, D.C., pol would consider it laughable. In last week’s Subway story, the activists were proudly claiming that they had 300,000 signatures on petitions. Can anyone imagine Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell moving a single hair on their head if provided with a such a petition against one of their policies? You need far more serious numbers and a boatload of money to move the average member of Congress. That’s because when politicians look at the numbers, they first check the U.S. population, which is currently 326 million. Then they recall that after redistricting in 2010, congressional districts were redrawn so that each would accommodate 700,000 people. And they know they can safely ignore about half of those 425 districts, or around 140 million people. Meanwhile, the typical marketing vice president at Subway worries anytime they hear from any consumer who has a negative opinion about one of their franchises. Present that VP with petitions bearing 300,000 signatures of people wanting just one thing, and his or her resistance will prove futile.
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