Amid Public Health Concerns, Investors Seek Improved Oversight of Antibiotics Use in Meat Production

Dec 14th 2017

Investors say policies to phase out use of medically important antibiotics are needed to safeguard their effectiveness in public health. 

NEW YORK, NY – Thursday, December 14, 2017 – In light of the emerging global risk posed by antibiotic resistance, shareholders in casual restaurant chains McDonald’s and Denny’s, and major chicken producer Sanderson Farms, have filed shareholder resolutions calling for policies that will curb the use of medically important antibiotics in their meat supply chains. 

Antibiotics overuse in livestock has proven to increase antibiotic resistance in humans. Antibiotic resistance could cause 300 million premature deaths and up to $100 trillion in global economic damage by 2050. It is estimated that over 70% of medically important antibiotics in the U.S. are sold for livestock use. 

The resolutions, part of a multi-year engagement with meat producers and restaurant chains to promote more sustainable and safe practices, come at a time when antibiotic resistance is rising on the regulatory agenda. In November 2017, the World Health Organization released guidelines on the use of medically important antibiotics in animals, “strongly recommend[ing] an overall reduction in the use of all classes of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals, including complete restriction of these antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention without diagnosis”. The report stresses the importance of limiting antibiotic treatments in livestock in order to protect their efficacy in human medicine. 

Said Austin Wilson of As You Sow, “While antibiotic use in livestock has its place to treat sick animals, most meat producers administer it routinely to prevent illness caused by unhealthy conditions on farms, rather than to treat diagnosed illness. We are requesting that the companies adopt policies committing them to produce and source only meat that has not been routinely treated with antibiotics that are crucial for human medicine. Business as usual is a significant risk to the companies and to public health.” 

While McDonald’s has mostly phased out medically important antibiotics in its chicken supply chain, it has yet to adopt a similar sourcing policy for beef or pork,  something customers have indicated they strongly prefer. Based on new FDA data, and USDA livestock production statistics reported last week, beef, pork and turkey producers are using more than ten times the quantity of medically important antibiotics per pound of meat produced than hicken producers.   

Said Sr. Susan Mika of the Benedictine Sisters, “Fast food restaurants serve millions every day and need to be concerned with the public health consequences of their products. Denny’s is without any antibiotics policy whatsoever, and McDonald’s positions itself as a leader in sustainability yet has failed to extend its antibiotics policy to cover all the meats it serves. With competitors including Panera and Chipotle already serving chicken, beef and pork raised without the routine use of antibiotics, investors question why this topic isn’t seen by management as the grave threat to market share it represents.” 

Of the three companies the investors engage, Sanderson Farms has publicly stated that “there is not any credible science that leads us to believe we’re causing antibiotic resistance in humans”. The investors claim this stance ignores the numerous studies recognized by every major medical authority and further, is part of a campaign to intentionally mislead the public on this issue. 

Research has further shown that poultry processing workers are 32 times more likely to carry antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria, showing that the current use of antibiotics threatens the health and safety of Sanderson’s 11,000 employees. 

Observed Wilson, “The routine use of antibiotics in healthy livestock is a concern to a majority of consumers and internationally recognized health authorities and, for this reason, is a topic of increasing scrutiny both here in the U.S. and overseas. As investors we continue to see this practice as unsustainable and have been pressing producers and restaurant brands to phase out their use for all but therapeutic reasons. These resolutions have received significant shareholder support in the past and we expect this year they will be even more successful.” 

The resolutions will be voted on by all shareholders at the companies’ upcoming annual meetings. Last year, resolutions with McDonald’s and Sanderson Farms on this topic earned shareholder votes of 31% and 31.5%, respectively. Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR)’s global coalition of investors worth more than $3 trillion has called on companies to adopt antibiotic stewardship policies. 

On October 17, 2017, ICCR and FAIRR hosted a roundtable that brought together restaurant and retail companies, meat producers, investors, trade associations, NGOs, and public health advocates to discuss antibiotic risk in meat production. The report from this meeting, held under Chatham House rules, is available here.

About the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)

Celebrating its 46th year, ICCR is the pioneer coalition of shareholder advocates who view the management of their investments as a catalyst for social change. Its 300 member organizations comprise faith communities, socially responsible asset managers, unions, pensions, NGOs and other socially responsible investors with combined assets of over $400 billion. ICCR members engage hundreds of corporations annually in an effort to foster greater corporate accountability.