The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Guardian published a collaborative investigation on November 21, 2022, exposing major fast food companies for their use of beef suppliers that employ antibiotics linked to the spread of dangerous superbugs. Superbugs are strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. These beef suppliers are using antibiotics classed as the “‘highest priority critically important’ to human health,” known as HP-CIAs. Due to the importance of these antibiotics to human health, the World Health Organization has cautioned against providing them to cattle in the past, most notably in 2017. Despite the concern for antibiotic resistance, agriculture suppliers continue using antibiotics to ensure their cattle are not getting or spreading diseases and avoid economic loss. In its article, the Bureau also looks to hold food companies accountable for their role in passing along antibiotics to the public through a lack of accountability and standards.
The Bureau and the Guardian obtained information from unpublished United States government records including specific data held by the US Department of Agriculture, revealing that “residues of numerous HP-CIAs and other antibiotics were present in many of the US’s beef supply chains between 2017 and 2022.” The Bureau and the Guardian did a further analysis of this data relating to ten of the biggest meat suppliers, which showed “that all [cattle suppliers tested] had at least one HP-CIA in use on farms.” For example, suppliers selling to Wendy’s, Walmart, and Taco Bell were sourcing cattle from farms found using seven HP-CIAs, and the supplier selling to McDonald’s traced at least five HP-CIAs from their cattle farm. In addition, there were other antibiotics present in this meat.
These corporations have pledged in the past to decrease their use of antibiotics, yet this data proves otherwise. This investigation also found that companies are not taking accountability for using meat coming from farms that use antibiotics. For example, the article reported that “McDonald’s has repeatedly dodged calls for it to set targets to reduce the use of antibiotics by farmers supplying it with beef.” Furthermore, the effects of antibiotic resistance have already started to kick in. The article includes quotes from doctors who are seeing more and more young children who have already built resistance to third-generation antibiotics due to their exposure to antibiotics from sources other than medicine, such as fast food meat. This article also cites a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that “antibiotic resistance is responsible for more than 35,000 deaths in the United States each year and 1.3 million [deaths] globally” which shows the severity of this issue to both national and global public health.
As of March 27, 2023, there is little corporate media coverage of this story. There are a few articles that include the same facts and investigation information as the original Bureau article which were published by the Guardian; Eat This, Not That!; and Corporate Wellness Magazine. Additionally, the New York Times published a transcript of an interview with animal rights activist Leah Garcés for “The Ezra Klein Show,” which discusses cheap meat, factory farming’s role in antibiotic resistance, and the subsequent danger this presents to the public.
Overall, this investigation piece and the few niche publication articles emphasize how antibiotic overuse in cattle farming is extremely harmful and that the consequences of exposure to antibiotics through fast food meat consumption are severe. However, the lack of corporate coverage on this topic means that the public is not well informed about the dangers of fast food meat and allows major corporations to continue sourcing antibiotic-laden cattle, ultimately resulting in a negative impact on human health.
Meaghan Cameron, “McDonald’s and Taco Bell Still Use Beef That Is Putting Public Health at Risk, According to a New Investigation,” EatThis, NotThat, November 22, 2022.
“Reports Uncover ‘Reckless’ Antibiotic Use By McDonald’s and Walmart Beef Suppliers,” Corporate Wellness Magazine, December 8, 2022.
Student Researcher: Hailey Hearney (Drew University)
Faculty Researcher: Lisa Lynch (Drew University)