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Subway, other restaurant chains make progress on antibiotic-free chicken

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Candice Choi/AP/File

(Read caption) A "McPick 2 for $2" deal at a McDonald's restaurant in New York (Jan. 4, 2016).

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Subway struck another blow in the "responsible fast food" marketing wars this week.

The sandwich chain says it’s the largest chain of its kind to deliver on a promise to serve antibiotic-free chicken in its restaurants nationwide, beating out rivals like McDonald’s, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, and Panera.The first product available as part of that venture, a Rotisserie-style chicken sandwich made with antibiotic-free meat, will be available starting on March 1.

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Subway also plans to gradually introduce antibiotic-free turkey, with the ultimate goal of serving completely antibiotic-free meat in its restaurants by 2025. 

'Antibiotic-free’ means that the chicken was raised without antibiotics that either served to assist with its growth or were used to prevent disease, according to the National Chicken Council, the trade organization that represents the chicken industry.

Scientists have warned for years that the food industry’s use, and overuse, of antibiotics for livestock raised for food can pose problems for the humans that eventually consume them. It is also possible for these antibiotics to enter common water supplies from livestock production sites. Over time, pathogens that are harmful to people may develop resistance to these antibiotics and spread, and there is some risk that some of them could become aggressive superbugs.  

Yet the food industry is now slowly pulling back on giving antibiotics to livestock, and using it in feed. Tyson has curbed its use of antibiotics in its chicken operations by more than 84 percent since 2011, and seeks to make further reductions in the future.  In 2014, Chick-fil-A pledged to curb antibiotic use in its chicken supply, with the goal of being completely antibiotic-free by 2019. McDonald's, Perdue, and Aramark, which runs cafeterias in unversities, hospitals, and more nationwide, have set similar goals. 

Food retailers and restaurants are seeking to serve more responsible food as consumers become more interested in, and educated about, what they are eating. But the transition has been slow going. Last fall, a joint report from several consumer and environmental groups, titled “Chain Reaction” handed failing grades to several major fast food chains, Subway and Burger King among them, for poor practices regarding the use of antibiotics in their chicken supply chains.   

McDonald’s received a passing grade in that September 2015 report. McDonald’s is one of the biggest poultry buyers in the country: in the United States, it receives close to 400 million pounds of chicken every year from Keystone Foods, one of its suppliers.

However, McDonald’s has been working to phase out using antibiotics in its chicken since at least March of 2015, when the company announced that it stop offering chicken raised with antibiotics by 2017. At the time of the announcement, McDonald’s also planned to begin offering milk from cows that have not been treated with artificial growth hormones.   

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McDonald’s says that it does not add growth hormones, which are different than antibiotics, to its chicken. The use of hormone drugs is illegal for poultry production in the United States, but is legal for dairy livestock, cattle raised for beef production, and sheep.