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What's In Your McMuffin? New Study Looks at Fast Food and Antibiotics

Mike Mozart / Flickr

Mike Mozart / Flickr

Some California groups are putting pressure on fast food chains this week to fight antibiotic use in their beef, pork and poultry.

A new report released by the nonprofit California Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and authored by Consumers Union ranks popular fast food restaurants based on how much of their meat is treated with antibiotics.

Some research has shown that widespread antibiotic use in animals can lead to the transfer of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to humans through the meat supply.

Fourteen of the 25 fast food chains in the study have implemented some kind of livestock antibiotic policy.

CalPIRG Education Fund director Emily Rusch says she's happy some restaurants are starting to be more cautious. 

“It’s especially important that the marketplace steps up," Rusch says, "and so we’re excited to note how much progress has actually been made in the last year.”

Each restaurant chain received a grade for their policies around antibiotics in their meat supply. Here's the list:

A: Chipotle, Panera

B+: Subway

B-: Taco Bell, KFC

C+: McDonald's

C: Wendy's

D+: Pizza Hut, Starbucks Coffee

D: Dunkin' Donuts, Jack in the Box, Burger King, Papa John's

F: Dairy Queen, Sonic, Olive Garden, Applebee's, Domino's Pizza, Chili's, Little Caesars, Arby's, IHOP, Cracker Barrel, Buffalo Wild Wings

There's been a lot of regulation around antibiotic use for livestock at the federal level. Farmers used to be able to give antibiotics to animals via their food and water, both to improve growth and to prevent disease outbreaks in the pens. Now, they can only be used for the latter. 

But Rusch says farmers are still pumping lots of drugs into their animals. And that can mean big problems for human health.

"Antibiotic resistant bacteria, if they're allowed to flourish on the farm, don't just stay on the farm," she says. "They can travel through air, through food, through water, to infect human populations."

Noelle Cremers of the California Farm Bureau Federation says some antibiotics are necessary to keep livestock healthy. 

"Animals get sick just like people do, and we need to treat them just as we need to be treated if we get sick." 

Though the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other major groups have voiced concern about anitbiotic use among livestock, it's unclear to what extent the "superbug" problem has to do with animals. 

Dr. Terry Lehenbauer is a professor of veterinary medicine at UC Davis. He says picking something up from meat is possible, but unlikely.

“Because of the way food is produced and the way it’s processed and cooked and served," Lehenbauer says, "the opportunities for a resistant organism to be present, to be transmitted in the food, to undergo the normal cooking and preparation steps and still survive, to be exposed to a person that might be consuming that food and then to develop an infection, and then to develop an infection that would be resistant to normal treatment is a possibility, but it’s an extremely rare situation.”

Starting in 2018 in California, farmers will need approval from a veterinarian to give any antibiotics to livestock. 

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