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I am typically skeptical when I hear the term “win-win”. More often than not, one of the winners is putting a happy face on a loss. There are always exceptions to the rule, and the recent announcement by Subway to stop serving meat raised with antibiotics is one.
It’s a win for Subway and its “eat fresh” brand. With more restaurants in the U.S. than any other, Subway has built an empire in the restaurant industry with its healthy image. Subway lived up to that image in announcing a comprehensive policy to source only meat from animals raised without antibiotics. They will no longer purchase chicken raised with antibiotics by the end of 2016, transition turkey within 2-3 years later, and even set a schedule for eliminating antibiotic use in the pork and beef they source by 2025.
More importantly, the Subway announcement is a big win for public health and represents a huge step toward preserving the effectiveness of life-saving antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is a major public health threat, killing 23,000 Americans a year and sickening millions more. A study conducted in the U.K. concludes that if left unchecked, antibiotic resistance will take more lives worldwide than cancer by 2050.
Livestock and poultry, especially those raised in factory farm confinements, are routinely fed low doses of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease brought on by unsanitary conditions. This practice kills most bacteria, but gives resistant bacteria that survive an opportunity to grow and flourish.
Manure and urine from the animals containing antibiotic resistant superbugs can attach to soil, air or water and then transmit to humans. A person can be a vegetarian or vegan and still be affected by antibiotic resistant bacteria. So it’s crucial to eliminate the routine use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry production before resistance develops and spreads. Subway, as a major purchaser of meat and poultry products, has exerted its power in the marketplace to end the abusive use of antibiotics in agriculture that contributes to resistance.
Lastly, Subway’s announcement is a win for all the groups working to keep antibiotics working. Frustrated by the inaction of national policy-makers, we have turned to the marketplace to seek a remedy for the growing public health threat posed by antibiotic resistance. We’re joined by public health professionals concerned by the prospect of a post-antibiotic era in medicine, where simple infections can kill again. Ninety-three percent of health professionals are concerned about the practice of using antibiotics on healthy animals for growth promotion and disease prevention because those conditions encourage antibiotic resistance. More than 20,000 public health professionals have supported our effort to stop the overuse of antibiotics.
MASSPIRG staff and volunteers along with our coalition partners including NRDC, Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, Keep Antibiotics Working, and the “Food Babe,” educated and engaged the public - including Subway customers. We were prepared to deliver 270,000 petition signatures to Subway headquarters and simultaneously conduct 50 events nationwide to encourage Subway to make a commitment on antibiotics. Subway came to the plate beforehand and hit one out of the park just days before the planned events. So, we delivered those petition signatures and held those events to thank Subway for the home run.
Together with McDonalds and the many other restaurants that committed to end the routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, Subway is changing the marketplace. We’ll continue to encourage other major restaurant chains to join Subway in using their market power to compel changes in antibiotic use. However, before we engage in a new campaign it’s time to tip a glass to Subway and to celebrate what is truly a win-win.
Deirdre Cummings is MASSPIRG’s Consumer Program Director. MASSPIRG is a non-profit and non-partisan consumer advocacy organization.
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