Blog

A Sub-stantial Achievement

By Steve Blackledge
Public Health Program Director

We did it. Two days back, on October 20, Subway announced its plan to phase out antibiotics from its entire meat supply.

This huge victory is no small achievement.

Our campaign began with a failed attempt to convince the Obama administration to take stronger action on the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.

In December 2013 the FDA announced unambitious, voluntary guidelines around the same time that the president and his administration became more engaged on the issue. We hoped that would mean they’d kick the guidelines up a notch or two.

They didn’t, so we turned our attention to the marketplace, where leaders such as Chipotle, Panera Bread, and others with strong antibiotics policies were already contributing to changing the industry.

We rang in the new year with a campaign aimed at arguably America’s most iconic restaurant: McDonald’s. For ten years, it had been promising a commitment on antibiotics. Alongside a coalition of other nonprofit advocacy groups, we decided to stop waiting. Around the country we launched a massive grassroots campaign, gathering thousands of petition signatures and photos outside of McDonald’s restaurants and on college campuses, publishing dozens of opinion articles, hosting events around the country, and more.

In early March -- only two months into our campaign -- our advocate in Chicago delivered over 30,000 petition signatures to McDonald’s headquarters. The next day, McDonald’s announced that it would phase out the use of medically-important antibiotics from its chicken supply by 2017. Within weeks, two of the top five chicken producers followed suit, promising to phase out routine antibiotics use from their flocks.

At that moment, it was clear: there is power in the marketplace. So, the same collection of organizations that had worked on McDonald’s—Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth, and Keep Antibiotics Working—set our sights on the largest market player of them all: Subway.

Subway boasts over 27,000 locations nationwide, and purchases a tremendous amount of meat. We knew that, like McDonald’s, action by Subway to eliminate antibiotics from its meat supply would have a major impact on the industry and help put an end to the overuse use on antibiotics on livestock and poultry.

We got to work. Our citizen outreach teams blanketed neighborhoods throughout the nation and gathered over 100,000 petitions from consumers hungry for meat raised without routine antibiotics. We organized over 500 health care professionals to co-sign a letter urging Subway to take this step for public health. We generated thousands of tweets and Facebook comments from our members, sending message straight to Subway’s online front door.

With our campaign gaining traction, others important players like the Center for Food Safety and the Food Babe joined in. Together, we gathered over 270,000 petition signatures -- including over 100,000 from U.S. PIRG activists -- urging Subway to phase out routine antibiotics from its meat supply. Two days before we planned to deliver these signatures, Subway set one of the stronger antibiotics policies of any chain to date.

Thank you, Subway!

This is a huge victory for public health. Subway’s commitment means fewer poultry and livestock operations will dose healthy animals with our life-saving medicines. It means halting a practice that breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which already sicken two million and kill 23,000 Americans each year. And it means more hope that antibiotics will keep working to save lives today, and for generations to come.

Now, who’s next?

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