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Read Our Beaks: Chick-fil-A Takes 'No Antibiotics' Vow

Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich

Photograph by Rich Addicks/The New York Times via Redux

Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich

Chick-fil-A’s famous chicken sandwiches will still be breaded and fried, but soon they won’t come with antibiotics.

On Tuesday, Chick-fil-A, the privately held food chain based in Atlanta,announced that it intends to serve chicken “raised without antibiotics” at all its restaurants within five years. It sounds like a clear-cut promise. The history of such vows, though, isn’t so simple.

In 2007, Tyson Foods (TSN) created a campaign to sell chicken that was “raised without antibiotics.” Then it turned out Tyson was injecting the chicken eggs with a vaccine that included antibiotics.

Other fast-food chains have announced policies to curb antibiotic use in livestock, most notably McDonald’s (MCD) in 2003, but those polices have included loopholes that allowed livestock producers to continue giving antibiotics to healthy animals.

In essence, farmers were prevented from using antibiotics to promote growth while continuing to give them to treat sick animals or prevent disease. It is the latter, critics say, that is problematic, because it allows producers to continue plying healthy animals with medically important drugs. The Food and Drug Administration‘s guidance on antibiotic use in farm animals, released in December, contained a similar loophole.

Chick-fil-A said its announcement was spurred by consumer demand, with 70 percent of customers rating it a top issue in surveys. (It probably doesn’t hurt that shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG)—which touts its antibiotic-free meat—were the best-performing last year among fast-food restaurants).

The lag time of up to five years is necessary, Chick-fil-A says, to make changes in its supply chain to segregate chickens using antibiotics from those without.

While Chick-fil-A’s public statements were somewhat vague, Timothy Tassopoulos, senior vice president for operations, said in an interview that there is no wiggle room. “It is a 100 percent commitment,” he said. “No antibiotics ever.”

The company’s current stance is like some of its competitors in that antibiotics aren’t used on livestock for growth-promotion purposes. “This is the next step,” Tassopoulos said. (Indeed, the supply of antibiotic-free livestock is such that Chipotle is sometimes forced to buy conventionally raised meat, with a vow to tell customers when that happens.)

Chick-fil-A’s suppliers will be checked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure they’re in compliance with the policy, Tassopoulos said. Despite the logistical challenges, he said Chick-fil-A’s suppliers told him they believe the entire industry is moving in the same direction.

So who is next?

Martin is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York.

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