Subway introduced its new antibiotic-free rotisserie-flavored chicken Tuesday, a first step in the fast food chain’s push to serve only antibiotic-free meats by 2025.
The move by Subway follows that of several other fast-food franchises, including McDonald’s, which has announced that all its chicken will be antibiotic-free by 2017, and Chic-fil-A, which aims to serve only antibiotic-free chicken by 2019.
Served with wheat bread and cheese, a sandwich with the new chicken has about 360 calories, similar to the chain’s other chicken sandwiches. It costs $4.75 as a 6-inch or $7.75 as a footlong. Social media users posted mixed reviews in the comments section of Subway’s Facebook page, with some calling the sandwich “freaking delicious” and others expressing disappointment.
“It wasn’t awful, just didn’t taste like rotisserie chicken and had the consistency of canned cat food,” wrote Paula Cull.
In an email, Vani Hari, a health food activist and blogger at Foodbabe.com said she expects Subway’s change to inspire other fast-food chains to follow suit.
“Subway’s decision is a major wake up call to other restaurant chains who are not responsibly sourcing meat,” said Hari. “This will send shock waves through the entire meat industry.”
Antibiotics, originally used in humans to cure bacterial diseases, were first used in livestock in the 1950’s with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration. Feed-additive antibiotics, which helped increase the size of animals, led to a revolution in animal-production, according to a report on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website. Essentially, antibiotics allowed farmers to produce more meat for a lower cost.
“Antibiotics are one of multiple technologies that have allowed modern animal agriculture to be as it is today, more efficient than ever before,” wrote Michael Apley, veterinary clinical pharmacologist at Kansas State University in an email.
While farmers were able to profit from meat treated by antibiotics, the FDA now warns the increased use of antibiotics can make bacteria more resistant to treatment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call these strains of bacteria “superbugs.”
With increased awareness about food safety through news articles and documentaries such as “Food, Inc.,” more consumers in the U.S. are buying organic and antibiotic-free products. Antibiotic-free chicken sales grew 34 percent in 2014, according to a report published by the Global Opportunity Network.
“Today’s consumer is ever more mindful of what they are eating,” said Dennis Clabby, executive vice president of Subway’s independent purchasing cooperative. “We’ve been making changes to address what they’re looking for.”
Chipotle, one of the largest buyers of antibiotic-free meat in the country, sources their chicken, beef and pork from drug-free suppliers. The company posted a 17.3 percent growth in same-store sales in 2014, but experienced a decrease after reports of multiple E-coli outbreaks.
Fast-food companies looking to make similar changes have encountered setbacks as well, as many food suppliers are not able to provide antibiotic-free meat on a large scale. That’s one reason why Subway, with more than 44,000 stores around the world, won’t be completely antibiotic-free until 2025. Subway would not release the names of its chicken supplier, but press representative Kristen McMahon said it is located in the United States.
Nancy Huehnergarth, executive director for the New York Healthy Eating and Physical Activity alliance, said it is difficult for both companies and consumers to find healthy food suppliers.
“At this stage of the game, it’s not easy to source responsibly-produced and safe food,” Huehnergarth said. “We’re still working on changing our supply chain to be able to do that en masse.”
It may be slow here, but other countries around the world have made the switch completely. The government of Denmark restricted the use of antibiotics in animal production in the 1990s. In 2006, the European Union banned using the drugs in livestock for growth promotion. The FDA presented an initiative in 2012 to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock, called “Guidance 213,” but the recommendations were voluntary. A sudden stop of antibiotic use in the U.S. is not the solution, according to Apley.
“This will cause some very significant animal welfare issues and loss of animal resources,” Apley wrote.
Still, advocates say that suppliers have chosen to place profits before health.
“What’s more important?” Huehnergarth said. “The health of a nation, which is slowly losing the effectiveness of antibiotics, which will ultimately take us back to pre-antibiotic days when strep throat could kill someone, or perhaps losing some of their profits.”
Superbugs cause two million infections and 23,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.