Companies under the spotlight on antimicrobial resistance

By : Clare Richards
Sep 30, 2016

Shareholder activists are urging food companies, including McDonald's, to ensure responsible on-farm antibiotic use.

Antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance (AMR): not exactly words to kick-start a dinner party conversation, but this issue has important links to mealtimes and everyday life. AMR signals the decline of our ability to treat infectious diseases with antibiotics. The wonder drugs that we have been able to take largely for granted are becoming less effective due to their overuse.

When antibiotics are used inappropriately in the treatment of both animals and humans, ‘superbugs’ adapt and undermine the drug’s effect. This is compounded by the byproducts from pharmaceutical production polluting land and water sources, while the residue from farming usage lingers in some of the meat on sale to us. As a result of this dangerous combination, AMR has the capacity to kill millions of us each year, and will cost trillions to address.

The connection between this and your dinner plate is that many farm animals are routinely dosed with antibiotics to prevent disease, a problem that too often masks poor welfare practice such as close confinement of livestock. Frequently, the drugs are added to the feed or water of a whole group of otherwise healthy animals, rather than being targeted to treat an animal that is actually sick.

Why? Because it can seem cheaper to pack animals in and treat the resulting problems in advance rather than to address sickness when it actually does appear. However, as with so many risks inherent in the intensive livestock farming industry, this poor practice is not factored in at anywhere near its true cost. The routine overuse of antibiotics enables microbes to adapt to the medication and makes it less effective when it is really needed. As a result, even simple operations and treatments might become far more problematic in the not distant future.

Food companies have a central role to play in changing the standards that are otherwise pushing us to crisis point, but this needs action at multiple levels. With the World Health Organization having labeled AMR as a global threat to public health and agitating for greater action, turning the attention of world leaders on to this issue was an overdue but welcome step. That moment arrived in late September when the issue was elevated to a UN High-Level Meeting on AMR.

This issue is not limited solely to the livestock industry – medical use in humans also needs to be addressed – but around 70% of antibiotics sold in the US and around half those sold in the UK are used in farm animals. Those are huge stats. Regulation has tightened up in recent years, but even the requirement of vet oversight leaves wide scope for interpretation, and this is far from a guarantee against excessive usage.

That is why shareholder activists have been campaigning on this issue and ShareAction is part of the global push for greater responsibility when it comes to dishing out these drugs. Ahead of the recent UN Meeting on AMR we helped to coordinate an investor statement on AMR, endorsed by 77 institutions managing US$569 billion in assets. These investors called on world leaders to bring clarity to recommendations on antibiotic usage and “ensure that public health sits firmly at the heart of the food system”.

Is that too big an ask? Not to our minds. Antibiotics should be used to treat sickness, not guard against ill health or prop up inherently unsustainable methods of food production. We have been making a similar call to a group of 10 food retail outlets and restaurant chains – asking big food brands to introduce clear policies on antibiotics that rule out routine overuse in their supply chains. We are not asking that antibiotics are never used to treat sick animals – that would be inhumane – but, working alongside the FAIRR initiative, we’re asking companies to give a clear lead to their suppliers in calling for a transition away from routine over-medication. 

So far this company engagement – which aims to influence high-street brands including Burger King, JD Wetherspoon’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut – has generated mixed results, but we are keeping up the pressure and look forward to reporting back on further progress soon. Feedback from some companies indicates that they are not prepared to go further than as demanded by regulation and consumer preference, which is why having a coordinated campaign and drawing on resources available within the likes of the Eating Better alliance is so important. Working together, consumers, experts and shareholders – along with international leaders – can show there is an appetite for better standards and less reliance on medication in our food system: it is in all our long-term interests.

To take action on this, you can join our specific call for McDonalds to demonstrate leadership on antibiotics. They’ve already made some limited progress in banning the routine use of antibiotics, but this only applies to poultry in its North American markets.

AMR does not respect national borders or particular products. This is why we are calling on McDonalds to phase out the routine use of medically important antibiotics across its global supply chain and for all meat and poultry ingredients.

If it values its role as a good corporate citizen and the impact its purchasing decisions have – not just on those who love a Big Mac, but on the health of each and every one of us – it has the global reach and buying power to change the rules of the market. Take action >> Email McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook: call on him to pay attention to the excessive use of antibiotics.


Clare Richards is Campaigns Manager at ShareAction, a responsible investment charity 

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