An illustration of antibiotics in the shape of a cow.

Though the majority of the top 25 chain restaurants now no longer serve chicken that has been raised with medically important antibiotics, a new annual review of the top 25 burger chains reveals a very different pattern for beef.

CR's Special Report on Antibiotic Resistance

Chain Reaction IV: Burger Edition” (PDF), produced annually by Consumer Reports—along with the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, the Food Animal Concerns Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group—grades restaurants on their current antibiotic policies.

For the first time, this year’s report provides consumers with two score cards: One that covers the top 25 fast-food and fast-casual restaurant chains, and one that looks at the top 25 burger chains.

Among the burger chains, only two—BurgerFi and Shake Shack—received A grades for serving no-antibiotic beef. But the larger burger chains, including Burger King, McDonald’s, and Sonic, got failing grades, while Wendy’s got a D-minus.

“While companies should be lauded for shifting to no-antibiotic chicken, chicken only accounts for 6 percent of the usage of medically important antibiotics in the meat industry,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumer Reports. “By contrast, the beef industry uses 43 percent.”

Feast on the latest food news about healthy eating, food labels, safety, and sustainability. Delivered weekly to your inbox. Sign up.

The Trouble With Antibiotic Use

Giving healthy animals antibiotics to prevent diseases they can contract when being raised in crowded, unsanitary conditions is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance, in which the bacteria that can cause illness don’t respond to drugs. Those resistant bacteria can end up in the food supply and can infect you—leading to serious, potentially deadly illness. Infection can come from touching or eating undercooked, contaminated meat; eating plants grown with fertilizer made from animals treated with antibiotics; or by drinking tainted groundwater. Studies even suggest that resistant bacteria could be transmitted through the air.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans think meat producers should stop giving antibiotics to animals that aren’t sick, according to a recent Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 1,014 U.S. adults.

“Ideally, healthy animals would not be given any antibiotics at all,” Halloran says. “But at a bare minimum, medically important antibiotics—drugs used to treat people, such as amoxicillin, erythromycin, and tetracycline—should never be used for routine disease prevention in animals.”

At least 2 million Americans contract an antibiotic-resistant infection every year, and 23,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CR’s calculations of the CDC data show that about 20 percent of these infections are linked to food. CR’s survey found that 1 in 3 Americans either experienced an antibiotic-resistant infection or knew someone who had.  

The Issue With Burgers

Because of the high use of antibiotics in the beef industry, this year’s Chain Reaction report zeroed in on burger-focused restaurants.

The companies were sent a survey, and their responses—along with public statements by the companies in the press or on their websites—were used to calculate the score.

At BurgerFi and Shake Shack—which both received A ratings for their beef sourcing policies—100 percent of the beef served is raised without any antibiotics.

Of the remaining 23 burger restaurants, 22 received F’s, meaning they give no indication of having a policy that limits antibiotics in the beef they serve. The remaining company, Wendy’s, got a D-minus. That company committed this year to sourcing a small percentage of beef from producers who minimize (but don’t eliminate) the use of medically important antibiotics in their cattle.

Halloran says the commercial beef industry faces particular hurdles that make it challenging to reduce its antibiotic use. “For the first part of their lives, most cows are raised on the range, and rarely given antibiotics,” she says. “Then when they’re moved to a feedlot for ‘finishing,’ they’re packed together tightly and given a rich diet of corn and soy. Cattle’s natural diet is grass; feeding them grain makes them prone to developing liver abscesses and other infections. This system relies on antibiotics to fix its issues.”

Despite these challenges, burger chains can limit antibiotic use in their beef supply chain, says Lena Brook, M.E.S., interim director for food and agriculture at the Natural Resources Defense Council. There may even be a financial gain: Nearly 60 percent of Americans in CR’s survey said they would pay more at a restaurant for a burger made from beef not raised with antibiotics.

“The fact is, Shake Shack and BurgerFi have managed to eliminate antibiotic use entirely in the beef they purchase,” Brook says. “Imagine the impact if McDonald’s were to do the same.”

The report notes that McDonald’s is the single largest purchaser of beef in the U.S. If that company was to prohibit antibiotic use among its suppliers, it could lead to significant shifts in the beef industry.

Like most of the other burger chains, McDonald’s received an F on the “Burger Scorecard” for having no meaningful antibiotics policy regarding its beef. However, McDonald’s received an overall score of C because of its 2016 implementation of a policy eliminating the use of medically important antibiotics in its chicken production.

McDonald’s told CR that the company is currently finalizing a global antibiotics policy for beef and will begin rolling it out before the end of 2018. No further details were provided.

If you’re concerned about antibiotic use in beef production, you can add your name to CR’s petition that will be delivered to the 22 burger chains that received F’s, asking them to stop buying beef from producers that overuse antibiotics in animals.

Changing Attitudes Toward Antibiotics

In the first Chain Reaction Report in 2015, the results of the evaluation were significantly different from those announced today. Back then, 20 of the top 25 chains had no policies to limit their antibiotic use for any meat or poultry. This year, the number of chains with no policy dropped to seven.

Most of the changes made by fast-food chains were in sourcing their chicken from suppliers that do not use medically important antibiotics. For instance, Domino’s improved its rating specifically by improving commitments to reducing antibiotics in its chicken supply chain—beef and pork were not addressed.

According to Halloran, that’s a lot of change in just a few years, and it may have been driven by consumers. Nearly 60 percent of Americans in CR’s survey indicated that they’d be more likely to eat at a restaurant that served meat raised without antibiotics—and more than half agreed that restaurants should stop serving meat and poultry raised with antibiotics.

Other results from this year’s Chain Reaction report:

• Three chains—Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, and Panera Bread—received the highest grade of A. Almost all the meat and poultry served at Panera and Chipotle are raised without any antibiotics at all. These companies have gotten top scores in all four Chain Reaction reports. Chick-fil-A is the newest company to receive a top grade—up from a B in past reports. The company says it is on track to source all its chicken from suppliers that do not use antibiotics by the end of 2019.

• Eleven companies improved their scores from last year, including Jack in the Box, KFC, and Papa John’s.

• Applebee’s and IHOP (both owned by Dine Brands Global) implemented their first-ever policies to address antibiotics in both their chicken and pork supplies, raising their scores from F’s to C’s.