KFC’s decision to quit buying chickens treated with antibiotics will wind up helping hospitals

KFC goes antibiotic free.
KFC goes antibiotic free.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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Kentucky Fried Chicken, the world’s second-largest fast food chain has announced that by the end of 2018, all the US chicken it purchases will be raised without antibiotics important in human medicine.

It’s a big deal in the ongoing discussion about the food industry’s role in helping to combat the rise of antibiotic resistance, which has made some infections impervious to antibiotic treatment. Here’s a rundown of how the story has unfolded in recent years:

  • Health professionals have been worried about the rise of drug-resistant bacteria since the 1980s, and attribute the problem, at least in part, to the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals.
  • But mammoth food companies have been slow to change their practices, even as the United Nations and well-regarded public health groups urged action.
  • In the last year, several have finally acquiesced.  Some major food companies acted faster than others. Panera and Chipotle have been praised for being early adopters. Others, though, including McDonald’s, Chick-Fil-A, and KFC have been criticized for dragging their feet.

The announcement by KFC took particularly long given the millions of chickens it deals in annually. The company also hasn’t yet released a full list of antibiotics it will commit to keeping out of its chickens. Nevertheless, the announcement marked a major victory for health advocacy groups.

“Their commitment is one that we’ve been waiting for,” the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) told Reuters.

Health advocates have talked about the rise in antibiotic resistance as a two-pronged problem. In part, it’s due to how hospitals too often use available drugs unnecessarily. The other side of it is how widely such drugs are used on the billions of food animals raised each year—sometimes for preventative measures, which gives animals regular doses over long periods of time, practically inviting certain bacteria to adapt and grow resistant.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections bite about $20 billion to $30 billion out of the US economy each year in direct health care costs. The agency also says about 2 million people in the US develop such infections annually, leading to some 23,000 deaths.

One of the reasons food companies have been slow to respond is because shifting away from antibiotics posed a major supply chain challenge, forcing companies to rework and reconsider how suppliers would maintain health of flocks and herds while also meeting demand.

Every year the NRDC rates the 25 biggest US fast food chains on their antibiotic policies and transparency. In 2016, the group’s report showed several restaurant chains successfully implemented new policies to force their meat producers to change how they use on-farm drugs, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, and Chick-fil-A.

The report also highlighted stragglers, including Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, and Olive Garden—all three received “F” grades, the lowest.

Some of largest US suppliers are also changing their practices around antibiotics. Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods, and Foster Farms are three of the biggest to commit to eliminating routine antibiotics use across all of their chicken farms. Pilgrim’s Pride, the second-largest American poultry company, has been slow to react.