Chicago | Reuters –– Sandwich chain Subway will start serving antibiotic-free chicken and turkey at its U.S. restaurants next year, and within the next nine years will stop selling any meat from animals given antibiotics, the company said Tuesday.
Rivals such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and McDonald’s have announced similar supply-chain shifts, adding pressure on U.S. livestock producers to cut human antibiotics from their beef, hogs and poultry production.
Advocacy groups said they were about to present Subway with a petition demanding the company set a timeline for its restaurants to stop serving meat from animals that had been treated with antibiotics.
Subway said customers will be able to start buying chicken raised without antibiotics at its more than 27,000 fast-food restaurants starting in March. The company did not state when antibiotic-free turkey will become available.
By 2018 it expects to shift all chicken and turkey supplies over to antibiotic-free meats. The company said that within six years after that, it will begin serving pork and beef only from animals raised without antibiotics.
The plans only apply to the U.S. stores’ suppliers, but while those moves are underway, a company spokesperson said Monday, the chain “will continue to work with our suppliers in Canada and around the world to make progress on all our initiatives.”
When a “Canada-specific” timeline to supply antibiotic-free meats to the chain’s Canadian stores is available, the company “will be in touch,” the spokesperson said.
“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,” said Dennis Clabby, executive vice-president of Subway’s independent purchasing co-operative. “But, we are working diligently with our suppliers to make it happen.”
Subway’s was one of the most aggressive moves by the food sector to reduce use of antibiotics in meat production. The Natural Resources Defense Council and U.S. Public Interest Research Group said they and other groups were about to deliver a petition with nearly 300,000 signatures calling for a concrete timeline for the step.
Subway officials could not immediately be reached for comment about the petition.
Public health experts and federal regulators have long been concerned that routine feeding of antibiotics to animals could lead to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, a health hazard for humans.
But finding enough protein raised in the U.S. without such drugs has proved to be a challenge for food companies.
McDonald’s has said it plans to source only chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine by 2017 for its U.S. restaurants. Dunkin’ Donuts will prohibit suppliers from using medically important antibiotics or antimicrobials in healthy animals, but has no timeline.
Many large U.S. fast-food chains still serve meat from farm animals that have been routinely fed antibiotics, consumer groups said in a report released last month.
Subway in June also announced a new policy for all its North American operations, removing all artificial colours, flavours and preservatives from its sandwiches, salads, soups and cookies.
— P.J. Huffstutter is a Reuters correspondent covering the ag sector from Chicago. Includes files from AGCanada.com Network staff.