Like it or not — and a substantial number of consumers now classify themselves in the latter category — fast-food franchises are as much a part of the American landscape as freeway congestion, taxation battles and concerns over jobs and the economy.
Not to imply that perceptions of chicken and burger chains are all bad — it just seems that way when so much media coverage of their operations focuses on nutritional problems, low-wage pay scales and the eco-impact of the drive-thru, over-packaged, highly merchandised business models of the chains themselves.
See what I did just then?
To counter all that negativity, the major fast-food companies in recent years have taken up various environmentally and consumer-friendly initiatives their management hopes will polish their public image. Some of these are activist-driven; some of them are genuine efforts to blend best practices in “green” supply chain sourcing, socially responsible marketing and improved nutritional value with more media-savvy positioning that resonates with the Millennial and younger demographic segments upon which these chains depend for future profitability.
One such initiative underway across large swaths of foodservice is the wholesale retreat from support of animal agriculture’s use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics. Part of many restaurant companies’ efforts on that issue is pure PR: create an aura of concern and construct a fan-friendly position that tells potentially worried consumers, “We’re taking strong action to protect your family’s well-being — and that of the animals — by moving away from suppliers using such products.”
Journey to Antibiotic-Free
For example: Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy’s, the sixth-largest U.S. restaurant chain by sales revenue and the world’s third largest burger chain, with more than 6,500 stores worldwide, recently announced an “update” for investors and customers regarding antibiotic use in its meat supply chain.
Its report was titled, “2017 Corporate Social Responsibility Progress” and included this headline: “The Company Updates Standards Related to Antibiotic Use in Beef and Pork; Completes Journey to All Chicken Raised Without Medically Important Antibiotics.”
That sounds pretty impressive, and if I were reading it on an in-store poster while waiting in line to order one of Dave’s thousand-calorie Baconator sandwiches and a Mango Peach FruiTea Chiller, I might be convinced I’m forking over my discretionary food dollars to a corporation dedicated to making sure farm animals never get anywhere near those horribly dangerous antibiotics.
Which, if a kid gets an earache, the parents would practically demand their pediatrician prescribe said drugs post-haste.
In its report, Wendy’s stated that all chicken served in its U.S. restaurants now comes from birds raised “without antibiotics important to human medicine.”
That last phrase is critical. Its suppliers aren’t restricted from using all antibiotics, as most consumers would assume upon skimming that statement, only certain ones deemed “medically important” to people.
That’s not to say that limitations on the use of veterinary antibiotics used strictly for growth promotion and health maintenance is without merit, only that Wendy’s statement represents a neat way for the corporation to pretend to be all-in on eliminating antibiotics without actually committing to such a draconian policy.
Wendy’s also neatly tap-danced around whether or not its ground beef is (or will be) sourced from antibiotic-free cattle.
Its social responsibility statement noted that, “Beginning in 2018, Wendy’s will source about 15% of its beef from a progressive group of producers that have each committed to a 20% reduction of the medically important antibiotics routinely fed to their cattle.”
That’s about as soft a “commitment” as it’s possible to construct. Politicians promising lower taxes, better security and greater prosperity deliver a more believable sell job than a company pledging that 15% of its suppliers will reduce use of an (allegedly) problematic input by 20%.
Starting next year.
Anti-antibiotic activist groups praised Wendy’s for “setting an important example that others in the industry should follow,” as the national federation of State Public Interest Research Groups stated in a news release. The federation “urged the company to continue making progress toward eliminating routine antibiotic use from its entire meat supply.”
Which is exactly what Wendy’s PR people are hoping its patrons assume has already occurred.
What’s interesting about this report isn’t the observation that some corporation is carefully spinning its public relations efforts in a positive direction. Nothing new about that effort.
Rather, parsing the language of this and other food companies’ statements on antibiotic use reveals a sea change in theirs and the public’s attitude towards use of such inputs in animal agriculture.
For better or worse — take your pick — the point of no return is rapidly being reached regarding the acceptance of animal antibiotic use.
Reversing course is about as likely as the option of backing up in the middle of a crowded drive-thru lane.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.