Plans by Subway Restaurants to serve meat only from animals that have never been treated with antibiotics were not greeted warmly by livestock producers.
Subway announced Oct. 20 that it would begin moving toward the new policy early next year for its more than 27,000 U.S. franchise outlets.
Subway Canada had not made any similar announcement, and a response to queries had not been provided by press time.
Lack of an announcement similar to the one made in the United States gives some Canadian producers hope that the status quo will prevail.
“Subway Canada has not said that they’re going the same direction as the States,” said Reynold Bergen, science director with the Beef Cattle Research Council.
“It doesn’t mean they won’t, but it does mean that there’s a glimmer of hope for industry to engage them and provide another perspective on the whole thing.”
The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance held an Oct. 23 news conference in which hog producer Thomas Titus of Elkhart, Illinois, and National Pork Board veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Koeman expressed concern that eliminating antibiotic use for some animals in the supply chain would compromise animal welfare.
“What that means for us, potentially, is possibly not being able to use an antibiotic and not being able to treat animals whenever they’re ill and that, in my opinion, is inhumane,” Titus said.
He said a comment he posted to Subway’s Facebook page, which was critical of the chain’s new policy, was deleted, as were other comments that questioned the move.
“Subway needs to account for themselves on that particular issue,” he said.
Subway apparently heard from American producers in short order because it posted a clarification of its new policy Oct. 23.
“We recognize that antibiotics are critical tools for keeping animals healthy and that they should be used responsibly to preserve their effectiveness in veterinary and human medicine,” Subway said in its post.
“Our policy is that antibiotics can be used to treat, control and prevent disease but not for growth promotion of farm animals.”
Titus said animals needing antibiotic treatment could be segregated and removed from the supply chain.
However, if other food companies adopt similar policies, there would be no market for such animals, even when they recovered from illness and proper antibiotic withdrawal times were observed.
Bergen made the same observation.
“Take that logic far enough, if every retailer does it, what are you going to do with these animals?” he said.
Antibiotic use in food animals has become a concern with the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that affects human health. Elements of the connection between antibiotic use in livestock and resistant bacteria affecting humans haven’t been well established.
“The same consumers that are concerned about antibiotic resistance are also concerned about things like the environment and animal welfare,” said Bergen.
That means food companies may find it hard to comply with all consumer demands.
“They could promise themselves into a pretty tricky spot when they start making commitments around antibiotic resistance that are completely at odds with things like animal welfare.”
Koeman said there is no difference in quality and nutritional value in meat from animals treated with antibiotics and those that have not been treated.
Meat inspection includes tests for antibiotic residue in both the U.S. and Canada.
Canadian Food Inspection Agency tests from 2013 indicated that more than 99.9 percent of domestic and imported beef products were free from antibiotic residue.
Koeman said the National Pork Board was surprised by the Subway announcement, despite having had discussions with the company on other topics.
She also said she was not aware of any scientific data used by Subway to develop the new policy.
The fast food chain said in its initial news release that it will be a challenge to buy sufficient meat from animals never treated with antibiotics.
“Given the size and scope of the Subway brand, this commitment is the largest of its kind in the restaurant industry,” said Dennis Clabby, an executive vice-president in charge of purchasing.
“A change like this will take some time, particularly since the supply of beef raised without antibiotics in the U.S. is extremely limited, and cattle take significantly longer to raise.”
Clabby encouraged other companies to follow Subway’s lead.
The sandwich company has more than 44,000 franchises in 111 countries.