When sandwich restaurant chain Subway announced recently its would eliminate antibiotics of any kind from its U.S. chicken, turkey, pork and beef supplies, it turned a lot of heads, and many of those heads belong to people with a solid understanding of animal agriculture. Simply put, farmers are not pleased.
While some restaurant chains can more easily pull off such a strict antibiotics policy, it will be more of a stretch for Subway. Unlike Chipotle and Panera Bread, which operate mostly in larger metropolitan areas, many of Subway’s roughly 27,000 U.S. locations are in smaller, more agricultural communities whose residents feel pretty strongly that eliminating all antibiotics is not in the best interest of the animals.
Case in point: I live in what most people would consider a rural and agricultural area. The last two Subway restaurants I ate at were in small communities, both less than 30 minutes from my house. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, one of those towns has a population of 2,094 and the other has a population of 3,177.
Both of those restaurants do a good business, with a significant number of farmers going there regularly for lunch and supper.
But people who live in or near those towns, as well as other towns with similar demographics that have a Subway restaurant, might think twice about coming back and explore other dining options.
Scrolling the Internet, it doesn’t take long to find people’s displeasure with Subway over its recent announcement. For example, one of my friends, who happens to be a county Farm Bureau coordinator, had this to say on social media: “Subway joins the fear mongering food mania marketing scheme. I'll just have to make my own sandwiches.”
Does Subway’s antibiotics policy take things too far?
Restaurant chains are facing growing pressure to reduce antibiotic use from a lot of groups due to increasing concerns about a possible link between animal antibiotic use and human antimicrobial resistance. Subway earlier in 2015 revealed that it would be getting more strict with its policy.
But at the time, it appeared that it would be taking the same route that McDonald’s is taking — eliminating the use of antibiotics also used in human medicine in its chicken supply, but still allowing the use of other antibiotics to prevent and/or treat disease.
Had Subway gone with its original plan, it would have still made progress to satisfy the mostly urban anti-animal antibiotics lobby without alienating those who have a hands-on knowledge of what’s best for the animal. Farmers want healthy animals, but they also want healthy humans, and it would be much more difficult to fault a policy that phases out the use of antibiotics also used in human medicine while still giving animals the needed medications to assure their health and well-being.
Is antibiotics policy set in stone?
Shortly after the initial statement was made about Subway’s new antibiotics policy, which said it “plans to update its current antibiotics policy in a commitment to transition to only serving protein from animals that have never received antibiotics across all of its 27,000+ U.S. restaurants in early 2016,” Subway appeared that it might be changing its tune. Several media outlets published reports with statements attributed to Subway that the chain recognizes “that antibiotics are critical tools for keeping animals healthy and that they should be used responsibly to preserve their effectiveness in veterinary and human medicine.”
But when I again reached out to a spokesperson for the company after reading the latest supposed development, I was informed that Subway had not changed its implementation plan or timeline since the initial announcement was made.
I was also given the company’s latest statement: “We fully support good animal welfare practices and agree that sick animals should be treated appropriately so they do not suffer. However, our decision to use antibiotic-free meats is the result of very careful consideration of what customers are looking for and was done in partnership with our current suppliers. We fully understand that this policy is going to require a substantial amount of time and effort to implement, which is why we established the target dates we did. We know our suppliers are committed to make this transition while working with the industry to find alternative ways to keep animals healthy.”
(The target dates set were to completely serve antibiotic-free chicken in 2016, turkey in 2018-19, and pork and beef by 2025.)
I asked multiple times if this truly meant no antibiotics of any sort would be used under any circumstance. Those questions were never directly answered with a yes or no, but all signs point to no antibiotics of any type, ever.
Giving credit where it is due, it is commendable that Subway acknowledged that it doesn’t want animals to suffer and will work with its suppliers to find alternative ways to keep animals healthy, but perhaps the company should have found those alternatives before announcing its new policy and stirring up this hornet’s nest.