Subway ups the ante on antibiotic-free meat pledge

Courtesy of SoHome, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Back in August, Subway said it would stop selling chicken raised with human antibiotics in an effort to increase antibiotic-free meat options at its 44,000 chain restaurants. Now the sandwich giant is building on that pledge, planning to eventually transition to only serving meat from animals that have never received antibiotics.

The Milford, CT-based company will start rolling out changes in early 2016 at more than 27,000 U.S. restaurants, making antibiotic-free chicken available in March. Subway will also introduce turkey raised without antibiotics in 2016, completing that transition within two to three years. And the company will offer antibiotic-free pork and beef options in the years to follow, completing the switch by 2025, Subway said in a statement.

"A change like this will take some time, particularly since the supply of beef raised without antibiotics in the U.S. is extremely limited and cattle take significantly longer to raise. But, we are working diligently with our suppliers to make it happen," Dennis Clabby, executive VP of Subway's Independent Purchasing Cooperative, said in a statement.

The move comes as environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) put the heat on the fast food industry to phase out meat raised with antibiotics. McDonald's ($MCD), Chick-fil-A, Chipotle ($CMG) and Panera ($PNRA) have all pledged to cut back on, or in some cases, eliminate antibiotics. In March, McDonald's revealed plans to only source chicken raised without antibiotics within the next two years.

But Subway "has gone beyond McDonald's commitment earlier this year" with its latest decision, the NRDC said in a statement. The company's change marks a "giant step forward in the ongoing effort to get meat raised with routine antibiotics off more plates and menus," Lena Brook, food policy advocate at the NRDC, said in a statement. And the world's largest fast food chain should be "commended for answering its customers' calls," she added.

Meanwhile, government agencies and lawmakers are weighing in on the issue, calling for stricter measures to prevent the overuse of antibiotics in livestock and rolling out new legislation. Earlier this month, the USDA, FDA and CDC kicked off public meetings to figure out better ways to collect data about antibiotics use in food production. The agencies plan to publish their first report in 2018 and will take public comments on the strategies until Nov. 30 of this year.

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill that banned using antibiotics to fatten up farm animals, setting the strictest standards in the U.S. for the drugs in livestock. The bill also requires the California Department of Food and Agriculture to collect information about antibiotics use on farms and to develop best practices.

- read Subway's statement (PDF)
- get the NRDC's release
- here's USA Today's take