Ask the Q wants to see restaurant, pub, fast food and café chains publish company policies detailing how they are engaging with suppliers on the responsible use of antibiotics in their supply chains. 

The problem

The use of antibiotics to routinely prevent disease in large groups of healthy animals, and the overuse of critically important antibiotics (CIAs) and last-resort antibiotic colistin, are major public health issues.  

Overuse can lead to microbial resistance, which is transmitted from animals to humans by way of drug-resistant strains. These can be passed directly between the animal and the farm labourer, from the meat to the consumer, and it can be flushed into the environment via animal excrement. 

Currently, British and European legislation permits antibiotics to be used as a routine preventative treatment, EU regulations do not require crucial sensitivity testing of individual sick animals before CIAs are administered and last-resort antibiotic colistin is legally permitted. 

Analysis* 

In February 2017 The Independent published results from an Ask the Q survey of 61 restaurant, pub, cafe and fast food chains that found a widespread lack of commitment to the responsible use of antibiotics in company supply chains.

Ask the Q asked companies three specific questions: the first concerned the use of antibiotics in companies’ meat supply chains to prevent rather than treat disease; the second, whether companies’ suppliers restricted the use of CIAs only to the treatment of individual sick animals where sensitivity testing showed other treatments would be unlikely to work; the third asked if companies ensured suppliers do not use the last-resort antibiotic colistin.

Many of the responses were non-committal, unclear or didn't answer the question. Evidently there is a huge amount of confusion about the best approach to responsible antibiotics use from a public health perspective. Most also felt it was sufficient to say that they complied with UK/ EU legislation on the use of antibiotics in livestock although the law permits the routine preventative use of antibiotics as well as the use of CIAS and colistin. 

Lack of commitment to the responsible use of antibiotics

While just over half (33/61) of the companies replied, fewer than a quarter (13/61) answered the question. Only Jamie’s Italian said they do not permit the use of antibiotics at all.

Eighty-seven per cent (53/61) of companies make no mention online about the responsible use of antibiotics across their meat supply chains. Only three companies shared formal company policies with Ask the Q – Greene King, Café Rouge (owned by the Casual Dining Group) and Greggs and only Greggs’ policy is publicly available on its website. None of these companies was able to explain how they ensured compliance from suppliers. 

  • Only 2 companies referred to the use of antibiotics as a routine preventative measure in their meat supply chains – The Harvester (owned by Mitchell & Butlers) and Joe’s Kitchen (owned by The Restaurant Group); Nando’s referred to the prophylactic use of antibiotics in their supply chain but not whether this was routine.
  • Paul and Pod said they couldn't tell me – Paul citing that their suppliers are not obliged to give them this information, and Pod that they could not say because of ‘brand protection’. 
  • 10 claimed that they do not use them as a routine preventative measure: Papa Johns, Frankie & Benny's (yet the company that owns them, The Restaurant Group, states on its website that antibiotics are still used routinely and preventatively), Pizza Express, Wagamama, Byron Hamburgers, EAT, Pret, Greggs, Café Rouge and Domino's. Only Greggs have a publicly available policy to confirm this claim. 

A selection of confusing responses:

  • Strada: ‘Our suppliers don't use any antibiotics on their animals unless they really have to, it is a last resort'. 
  • Costa Coffee (owned by Whitbred): 'A limited use of antibiotics is permitted if prescribed by a qualified vet for the treatment of disease but the use of antibiotics as a whole scale preventative measure is a practice which should be avoided’. 
  • Wagamama: 'Within the Beef / Lamb supply chain antibiotic usage is relatively low. However, they are still used, with most antibiotics having to be prescribed by a Veterinary Surgeon‘ [by law all antibiotic treatments have to be prescribed by a vet, but there is no need for the vet to diagnose any disease in any of the animals before the prescription is written]
  • Greene King: ‘Greene King suppliers should be working with their producers to work towards a rational reduction and reliance in the use of antimicrobial and anti-parasitic agents within agriculture’ [with no indication of how they will ensure compliance]
  • Wetherspoon: ‘We do not support the wholesale use of antibiotics as a precautionary measure and would like to see their use confined to instances where infection has been identified’ [with no indication of how they will ensure compliance]Café Rouge: ‘We do not support the prophylactic use of antibiotics’ [with no indication of how they will ensure compliance]

Lack of transparency about use of CIAs and last-resort antibiotics

Less than one-third (18/61) of companies replied to the question about CIAs and last-resort antibiotic colistin. Only one company answered definitively about use of both CIAs and colistin. 

  • Subway claims it does not use any CIAs or the last-resort antibiotic colistin; Nando’s claims it does not use any CIAs in its supply chains; and TGI Fridays claims it does not permit the use of colistin. None of these companies have readily available policies or statements online to confirm this. 
  • 2 admit that colistin is used and 4 admit CIAs are used but with no mention of the recommended restrictions that should be in place [i.e. only for use on individual sick animals once sensitivity testing has been conducted].
  • Pod and Paul both again confirmed that they are unable to share this information, for the same reasons as before.

A selection of unsatisfactory responses:

  • Carluccio’s: ‘We would not ask our suppliers specifically which antibiotics are used only that they are food safe and meet legislative standards’.
  • Pret: ‘…critically important antibiotics are very, very tightly controlled.  I am aware of no use in the last 12 months’ [no indication of how antibiotics use is monitored]
  • Wetherspoon: ‘We are also conscious that the welfare of some animals would suffer if certain antibiotics were withdrawn from use before alternatives have been tested and proven effective’. [there is only one antibiotic that should be banned – colistin]

Consumer action

  • Email/tweet (#AsktheQ) your preferred restaurant, pub, cafe or fast food outlet:
    • Ask them to publish a company policy on how they are promoting the responsible use of antibiotics in their supply chains, specifically referring to routine preventative treatment, over-use of CIAs and the last-resort antibiotic colistin.

Notes
* Between September and January 2017 Ask the Q emailed 61 of the largest restaurant and pub groups, and fast food and cafe chains in the UK.