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The growing ranks of global health experts who have been alarmed by the rise in antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” have an unlikely new hero: KFC, the fried chicken giant.
Today, KFC U.S. announced that by the end of 2018, all chicken purchased by the company will be raised without antibiotics important to human medicine. A coalition of consumer and public health groups, including Illinois PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), had urged the company to act on the issue.
“This announcement is a win for anybody who might someday depend on antibiotics to get well or even save their lives -- i.e. everybody,” said Abraham Scarr, Illinois PIRG Director. “It’s also a welcome step by KFC. The company’s newfound commitment on antibiotics should have lasting effects on the way these life-saving medicines are used in the chicken industry.”
KFC is among the largest buyers of chicken in the United States. Estimates suggest the company’s newfound commitment could lead to a majority of the U.S. chicken industry no longer raising birds with the routine use of medically important antibiotics. That would signal a major shift in prioritizing antibiotic stewardship in chicken production, which will help to preserve these life-saving medicines for the future.
“The commitment from KFC to do their part to reduce antibiotic use in animals is an important step in helping keep the drugs available that we need to treat serious infections in people,” said Dr. Nicholas Bennett, Co-Director of Antimicrobial Stewardship at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. “As a society, we need more companies and restaurants to follow this lead.”
Illinois PIRG and its partners—including Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Consumers Union, Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) —delivered a letter signed by more than eighty consumer, health, and environmental organizations to Yum! Brands, KFC’s parent company, in January of 2016. The letter urged the restaurant company to phase out the routine use of medically important antibiotics in its meat supply chain.
Since then, the organizations have demonstrated widespread consumer support for KFC to make this move, including a delivery of 475,000 petition signatures to Yum! Brands Headquarters, nearly 5,000 consumer calls into KFC’s customer service line, and hundreds of social media actions directed at KFC (using #KFCsaveABX).
Approximately 70% of medically important antibiotics sold in the United States are for use on livestock and poultry. The drugs are often given routinely to animals that aren’t sick to promote growth and prevent disease that can be common in crowded, unsanitary conditions. This overuse breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can spread to people through various pathways. The letter sent to Yum! Brands in January 2016 cited these health concerns as key reasons for the restaurant company to phase out routine antibiotic use in their supply chain.
“We recognize that KFC had to choose between business as usual with their chicken suppliers or demanding that they raise chickens in a manner that doesn’t hasten the end of antibiotics,” said Scarr. “We sincerely thank the company for doing the right thing to protect these life-saving medicines for the future.”
Although government action at the national level has been slow in the United States, consumer demand is driving the marketplace away from routine antibiotic use. Industry leaders including Subway, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, McDonald’s and others have made various commitments to eliminate unnecessary antibiotic use from their supply chains. KFC’s commitment is a significant addition to this progress because it could push the U.S. chicken industry over the threshold for better antibiotic stewardship.
A shareholder resolution filed by the non-profit group As You Sow with KFC outlined the business risks involved in companies that are not keeping pace with growing consumer concern around antibiotic overuse. Other shareholder advocates, such as Green Century Capital Management, have secured antibiotics policies from Starbucks and Jack in the Box in the last several months.
“Antibiotics are a critical class of drug, without which many medical advances such as complex surgeries, cancer therapies, and organ transplants, simply couldn't be done,” said Dr. Bennett. “We cannot continue to abuse antibiotics in our animal farm practices without expecting further increases in antibiotic resistance.”
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