Yet another major fast-food chain joins the movement to position itself as an anti-antibiotics company. Now the question is, does industry applaud or condemn its decision?

Subway, which bills itself as the nation’s largest fast-food chain—at least in terms of number of units—has made a splash with its announcement this that the Connecticut-based chain plans to source meat and poultry products that are antibiotic-free.

According to the Associated Press, the move followed an intense campaign by a number of activist groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Food Safety, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and food blogger Vani Hari. The groups were apparently planning to deliver petitions to Subway’s headquarters this week.

In the announcement, company officials said that Subway stores would start serving chicken from birds receiving no antibiotics beginning in March 2016 and make a similar changeover for turkey products starting “sometime next year,” according to AP.

The transition would be completed within two to three years, officials said, with antibiotic-free pork and beef to appear on the menuboard by 2025.

Subway management said the announcement was the “culmination of several months of intensive work with suppliers” and that the decision was not a reaction to any campaign.

Right.

Subway now joins Chipotle and Panera, QSR franchises whose management previously announced plans to serve meat raised from animals raised without antibiotics, as well as McDonald’s, which earlier this year stated that the category leader would make a switch to antibiotic-free chicken.

Picking on an easy target

The activist coalition is already crowing about its latest victory.

Kari Hamerschlag, a representative for Friends of the Earth, told AP that the groups had warned Subway last week of their plans to deliver petitions to corporate headquarters, following months of unsuccessfully trying to arrange a meeting with the company.

Noteworthy is the fact that the groups singled out Subway because of its advertising.

 “We thought Subway was the most important one to target publicly,” Hamerschlag said, “because they claim to be this healthy fast-food restaurant chain.”

And the latest group isn’t the only activist targeting the chain. The movement to pressure Subway into going antibiotic-free follows on the heels of another recent activist victory with Subway. An online petition drive forced the firm to remove azodicarbonamide, a dough conditioner, from its bread, with company executives once again lamely arguing they were “already in the process of doing so.”

Earlier this year, a group of consumers filed suit for false advertising, forcing Subway to make changes to ensure that its “footlong” subs actually measured 12 inches.

Say what you want about Subway’s public relations stumbles, they’ve certainly fueled their advertising by signing a high-profile group of athletic endorsers who all claim to virtually live on their favorite sandwiches. The line-up includes such superstars as:

  • Marcus Mariota, the All-Everything Oregon quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner now playing for the Tennessee Titans
  • Russell Westbrook, the reigning NBA MVP and one of the most dynamic basketball stars in uniform
  • Clayton Kershaw, the LA Dodgers’ multiple Cy Young winner and arguably the best left-hander in baseball
  • Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels’ All-Star slugger and American League MVP

Of course, any company can line up pretty much whoever they want — provided the price is right. But does all that star power overcome a company’s image problems?

Granted, the comments below, from ordinary consumers logged onto the Huffington Post, represent people who don’t buy into the “Eat Fresh” mantra. However, even a cursory sampling of their opinions should give pause to anyone in the business about perceptions of the industry’s image and the widely held mythology that allows people to so easily condemn not just Subway, but every fast-food restaurant:

  • From Tracy: “I never could stand going into one of their stores . . . smelled so bad, like something dying.”
  • From Bobby: “Subway never used real meat to begin with. It’s all nugget paste solidified into molds. Why do you think they are always the same size?”
  • From Jose: “My biggest issue is that they also use flavor-free ‘meat’.”
  • From Michael: “Sounds like good PR to sell more meat to the anti-antibiotics crowd while cutting costs. They sure as hell aren’t all doing it out of concern for the animals or the environment we live in.”

One issue to be confronted is whether — and how — industry might “fight back” against the strategy to position key foodservice operators as anti-antibiotics.

The larger issue is how do producers and packers deal with the falsehoods about quality and food safety that have become ingrained into popular consciousness.

That’s a challenge that will be alive and kicking long after any fighting over antibiotics has died down.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.