Chucking GMOs and Antibiotics from Fast Food Menus

  • Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it plans to phase out GMOs from its food. Photo: Mike Mozart via Creative Commons

May 8, 2015

Some fast food restaurants are cleaning up the food on their menus—at the customer’s request. But are these changes meaningful to public health and the environment? 

Earlier this year, McDonald’s announced that they’d stop buying chicken treated with human-use antibiotics. This week, their main chicken supplier, Tyson Foods, said they’ll stop routinely using these antibiotics on their chickens. Other companies like Panera and Chick-fil-A have already taken these steps, and Chipotle has announced they will phase out genetically modified organisms (GMOs) used in the food served in their U.S. restaurants. 

Nathanael Johnson is an author and food writer for Grist, an online environmental news magazine. He says it’s important that food producers phase out human-use antibiotics, but the removal of GMOs might not matter as much as customers think it does. The Allegheny Front spoke with Johnson earlier this week to get some perspective on these new trends in the food industry. The highlights of Johnson's comments from that conversation are below:

Do Chipotle, McDonald’s and Tyson actually care about the quality of their food, or are the changes they’re making just a marketing ploy?

It’s really hard to separate the two. The customer is always right and the customer has been asking for all sorts of things, including changes in ingredients, including changes in the ways antibiotics are used, including labels or phasing out of  genetically modified ingredients. So even if it’s an honest attempt to be a better environmental steward, it’s may also help with the customer service.

Some changes are more important than others

The antibiotic issue is a real and pressing issue. [The U.S. is] using a lot of antibiotics and we’re using them up. And we’re mostly using them up in our medical system, the human pathogens are getting acclimatized to our antibiotics but there’s some pretty good evidence too that using a lot of antibiotics in our food system, in raising livestock, is really a bad idea in the long run. So these announcements that companies are going to be phasing out human used antibiotics really make a lot of sense.

Primer on human-use antibiotics 

There’s lots different types antibiotics out there, we only use a few of those  in medicine for people. Then there’s all sort of other antibiotics that just used for animals. Obviously the ones we care about the most are the ones we might lose in human medicine.

When you use an antibiotic a lot, then the microbes that are affected by that antibiotic have evolutionary pressure to adapt and evolve and gain resistance to that antibiotic. And if they’re in an animal, those microbes aren’t going to affect humans most likely, but microbes are trading their DNA all the time with other microbes. You could have a bacterium in the gut of a cow that gets the resistance to a medically important antibiotic, and then that microbe gets out into the world and raises millions and millions of children who are passing their DNA and that little bit antibiotic resistance DNA could get passed to a different species that is harmful to humans. So then you have a disease that is infecting humans that isn’t responding to our antibiotic.

Are GMO’s the flavor of the month?

There is this massive concern about genetically modified foods, and it’s really a populist concern. But it’s really interesting to see that when Chipotle made this announcement the response from the press was universally negative. I think I counted 23 editorials from across the media spectrum that were kind of slapping their heads in dismay about this Chipotle move. But really, what Chipotle is doing is responding to this huge concern of their customers. From a business perspective, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Will these changes matter 10 years from now?

I think some will and some won’t. To me, the change in antibiotic use here is the big one. The one’s that are more window dressing, won’t. As humans, we tend to worry about the wrong risks. We’re terrified of Ebola and ISIS, but we’re not so worried about driving while texting. We’re really worried about these chemical ingredients in our food, but as someone from the Center for Science in the Public Interest pointed out, if Panera is removing these chemicals from their paninis, even if some of them are dangerous, it won’t make any difference if you’re still eating a 1,000 calories panini every day with a 400 calorie drink. The real risks, and the real hazards to our environment have to do with climate change and have to do with public health in terms of heart disease and obesity and the effectiveness of antibiotics. Then issues around the risks of GMOs risk of these obscure chemicals are much much smaller.

My bet is that the change in antibiotic use is going to keep surging forward and the companies that get on this train early are going to be seen as heroes and the ones who get on it late are going to be seen as villains. But the companies themselves are making calculations and looking at things like this current interest in genetically modified food and wondering is this going to be a lasting issue that we need to reorganize our business strategy around or this just the flavor of the moment?