Making a commitment to drop fast food from our diet more than nine months ago was a somewhat difficult change for our family to make, causing us to form new habits and switch mindsets. I, as the mother and head cook of the house, had to do a better job being more prepared and even cutting back on some activities so I could have more time to stay home and cook. I missed the ease and convenience of being able to pull up to the drive-thru window and order dinner after a busy day of homework and baseball practice. The kids, of course, missed some of their favorite foods, and as I pointed out in a post last week, still miss their regular chicken nuggets fix. A few weeks back we were tempted by the new Chick-fil-A that opened up blocks from our house, so my husband and I did a little digging through their ingredient list to gauge our comfort level in eating there. I was particularly curious, since I had heard the buzz about the chain making promises to “clean up” their ingredients, including the phasing out of high fructose corn syrup and artificial dyes. Perhaps they had made some advancements on the core of their product — the chicken. I searched and searched for any information I could find about where the giant chicken restaurant sources their birds from, and I came up short. It was clear they had invested some time and effort into their snazzy “kitchen tour” on their website, but there was zero transparency about the type of chicken they used. Because of this lack of transparency, we decided that Chick-fil-A would unfortunately remain on our “Do Not Eat” list. I could’ve really gone for some waffle fries and sweet tea, too.
Fast forward to two weeks later. Chick-fil-A announced yesterday that it will only use chicken raised without antibiotics in all of its restaurants within five years. You read that right, five years time. While part of me is quite excited that a chain of this size is making this a priority, I’m also feeling frustrated that it will take this long. And I can’t help but feel a slight wave of cynicism, knowing that the FDA already announced new guidelines which would prohibit the routine use of non-treatment antibiotics in the raising of meat and poultry, due to take effect in three years time. Of course, Chick-fil-A is making a commitment to take these guidelines one step further, and vowing to use poultry which was never treated with antibiotics as a preventive or treatment measure, which is wonderful, but still — five years time?!?
Why will it take so long?
The bottom line, with a restaurant the size of Chick-fil-A, with over 1,700 locations and producing sales in excess of $5 billion, is that it’s going to take time to build up a supply chain of antibiotic-free chickens to meet their demand. When Chipotle came under heat for serving antibiotic-free chicken “most of the time” due to a shortage in supply, I found it most alarming that our food supply system could not provide enough antibiotic-free chicken to meet one restaurant chain’s needs. Currently, the vast majority of farmed chicken are raised in “factory farm” type settings, where antibiotics are used not only to stave off disease from cramped living conditions, but to assist with the growth of the birds, making them ready for processing in a quicker turnaround time.
Are antibiotics really that big of a deal?
While the National Chicken Council says the judicious use of antibiotics to both treat and prevent disease in livestock animals is completely safe and effective, growing numbers of bodies, including the CDC and the FDA, think our current system of overuse is something to be afraid of. While some numbers vary, most statistics point to the startling fact that the majority of antibiotics used in this country are given to animals, not to humans. Last year, I explained how the overuse of antibiotics can harm us by creating strains of bacteria and other microbes which are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotic treatment — also referred to as “superbugs.”
Is antibiotic-free good enough?
While I’d personally love to see Chick-fil-A commit to using organic or even free-range birds that were humanely raised, we have to be happy about small victories. Antibiotic-free is not only better for us in the long run, it’s also better for the birds. Preventative antibiotics are used in feed to help prevent diseases from living in horrible, cramped conditions. If a poultry farmer is eliminating antibiotics from the equation, the chickens have to be raised in somewhat better conditions where they can be more closely monitored. I had the chance to visit a small family farm which raises pastured birds, and one of the farmers pointed out that chickens are all susceptible to illnesses, no matter if they’re organic, free-range, or pastured. But when they’re raised and bred in smaller batches, given more space, and inspected on a daily basis, it’s easier to find the sick chickens and pull them from the flock right away to prevent the spread of illness or disease.
Chipotle has been working under these guidelines for years, sourcing all of their pork — plus most of their chicken and beef — from farms where the animals are raised in a humane way, free of antibiotics. They’ve been doing it profitably too. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Chipotle’s Director of Communications, Chris Arnold, and he informed me that while their food costs were the highest in the industry, at 30 to 34 percent, they also had some of the highest profit margins — proof that this type of business model can and does work. While there will always be debate about what is truly considered safe and unsafe in regards to our food supply, my motto is increasingly becoming “If it can be done in the most natural, simple, and clean way possible, why not just do it that way?” It is in fact possible to raise chickens without antibiotics, so why not just do it? Looks like Chick-fil-A is finally catching on, and I just may be able to pull up to the drive-thru window once again.