Subway Will Switch To All Antibiotic-Free Meat By 2025

Subway, a fast food chain that serves sandwich-like objects, has a problem: it has a restaurant on just about every street corner, and marketed itself with the slogan “Eat Fresh.” Yet its competitors are following trends, and people want food with simpler ingredients and fewer additives, and meat and dairy raised with fewer antibiotics. Today, Subway announced a policy change that’s good for public health: serving meat raised without routine antibiotic use by 2016 for chicken, and 2025 for beef and pork.

Earlier this year, Subway pledged to remove artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives from its food in the future, following some of its competitors and public tastes. Just last month, a coalition of organizations led by the Natural Resources Defense Council and including our crusading colleagues over at Consumers Union gave Subway (and most of its fast-food competitors) a grade of F for its current policies on antibiotics.

Advocates generally applaud Subway’s announcement: even if it takes a while, the chain is headed in a positive direction. “This is a victory for public health—and sandwich lovers everywhere,” said Lena Brook, Food Policy Advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council in a statement. “This commitment from the world’s largest fast food chain is a giant step forward in the ongoing effort to get meat raised with routine antibiotics off more plates and menus.”

Making this change will take a while. Subway now has a sandwich served on a test basis made from antibiotic-free chicken, and they will probably expand the availability of that product, allowing them to say that starting in the spring of 2016, “customers across the U.S. will able to order meals made with chicken raised without antibiotics.” They plan to serve antibiotic-free chicken in all chicken meals by the end of next year.

They will phase in antibiotic-free turkey beginning next year, but bringing it to all restaurants will take as long as three years. Beef and pork pose a bigger challenge: they will finish phasing those meats in over the next decade, finishing in 2025. (Chipotle’s challenges in finding humanely-raised and antibiotic-free pork may indicate why this change will take so long.)

The problem with antibiotics in meat is that serving meat animals low, sub-therapeutic doses does make the animals grow faster. However, low levels of the drugs in food exposes more bacteria to the drugs, leading them to develop resistance to the antibiotics in our arsenal, including the ones used to treat human diseases. This can lead to life-threatening infections with bacteria that doctors are unable to treat.

Routine antibiotics doses for animals also allow farmers and feedlots to keep meat animals in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. One thing that’s missing from Subway’s announcement is a suggestion that they might administer antibiotics to animals that are sick. Subway’s announcement says that it will serve meat from animals that have never received antibiotics, which is a higher bar. Update: Subway confirms that their meat will all eventually come from animals that have never taken antibiotics at all.

The Keep Antibiotics Working coalition wonders the same thing, since it would make the transition faster and easier in addition to, you know, treating the diseases that sick animals have. “Keep Antibiotics Working applauds Subway for making commitments on all meats it sells — not just chicken, senior analyst at the coalition, said in a statement. “We also encourage Subway to allow its suppliers to continue to use antibiotics to treat sick animals (a proper application), since this would allow the company to shorten its timeline for action.”