Phasing out antibiotic overuse: Too soon to count the chickens?

By Mara Lilley, Campaigns Team, ShareAction with input from Clare Richards

I recently found myself in a London pub asking the Chairman of JD Wetherspoon about what the company is doing to respond to the global antibiotic resistance crisis. It was an unusual setting for an AGM, but fitting for the company hosting it – they own just under a thousand pubs and hotels across the UK and Ireland.

Sitting in the Crosse Keys, I asked the Board whether or not they had adopted a policy on antibiotics in livestock supply chains. Located as it was among private shareholder horror that Wetherspoon roast dinners are a thing of the past, complaints that the air-conditioning was far too cold, and a query about the real need for fruit cider, ShareAction’s question to the Board was slightly out of the norm. But, while its relevance stretches far beyond one chain or one country, it is an issue that all food companies need to take seriously.


To prompt attention to this issue, in April 2016 ShareAction and the FAIRR Initiative coordinated letters from an investor coalition calling for an end to routine antibiotics use in company global meat and poultry supply chains. World Antibiotic Awareness Week is an appropriate time to take stock and assess what progress has been made.


JD Wetherspoon is among a group of restaurants and fast-food chains we’ve been engaging with in order to encourage the adoption of responsible policies on antibiotics usage – consistent and comprehensive action on this within food supply chains is essential to help minimise the global threat of antimicrobial resistance. Our initial research indicated that none of the target companies had comprehensive, publicly available policies in place.

To prompt attention to this issue, in April 2016 ShareAction and the FAIRR Initiative coordinated letters from an investor coalition calling for an end to routine antibiotics use in company global meat and poultry supply chains. World Antibiotic Awareness Week is an appropriate time to take stock and assess what progress has been made.

To date, food service companies have been slow to get off the starting block but momentum for change is building. Given that the Netherlands were able to reduce antibiotic use by 60 percent in just a few years, companies can and should be demanding more of their suppliers.


Following a number of high-level developments – most recently a call from leading medics for the UK Government to prohibit preventative prescription of medicines for farm animals – companies burying their head in the sand on this issue are setting themselves up for significant financial risk.


When it comes to addressing the use of antibiotics in poultry in North America, McDonald’s has shown a degree of leadership. However, their progress has failed to look beyond this one category or set timelines to apply the same standard across their global supply chain. Others such as Yum! Brands (owners of KFC and Pizza Hut) remain lagging far behind by failing to communicate any intention to move beyond the minimum legal baseline.

Following a number of high-level developments – most recently a call from leading medics for the UK Government to prohibit preventative prescription of medicines for farm animals – companies burying their head in the sand on this issue are setting themselves up for significant financial risk.

In the UK, companies are starting to acknowledge its importance, and are showing varying degrees of willingness to engage. Wetherspoon’s response to our AGM question was rather vague, but they are looking into the issue and are willing to engage further. Some – such as The Restaurant Group, and Mitchell’s and Butlers – have explicitly stated that they do not support the routine use of antibiotics and are working with suppliers to address this. This is a warmly welcome step forward and we celebrate these companies for their willingness to take progressive steps to address the threat of antibiotic overuse.


With clear signals from investors and consumers that change is needed, it remains to be seen which companies will seize the best-practice business opportunities, by driving down the overuse of antibiotics and driving up welfare standards. That leadership cannot come soon enough.


However, at the time of writing, no company has put in place specific timelines to phase out the phrophylactic antibiotics use across all species – that’s the use of medication to prevent, rather than treat, illness; something which is often used to mask the effects of poor welfare standards. We acknowledge that change can’t happen overnight. But, given the urgency of what is at stake, companies need to be putting in place realistic timelines and targets to prevent the use of medically important antibiotics in their food supply.

With clear signals from investors and consumers that change is needed, it remains to be seen which companies will seize the best-practice business opportunities, by driving down the overuse of antibiotics and driving up welfare standards. That leadership cannot come soon enough. As market leaders with global supply chains, when these companies step up and call for responsible practices across their supply chain, the rest of the industry will be propelled to follow suit.

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Colette St-OngePhasing out antibiotic overuse: Too soon to count the chickens?